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Critics Wary of Beijing's Pick to Enforce Hong Kong Security Law

By Joyce Huang July 16, 2020

As mayor of Shanwei city in Guangdong in 2011, Zheng Yanxiong oversaw mass arrests of citizens protesting corruption. He lashed out at "untrustworthy" foreign media coverage. A village representative detained during the unrest died in custody; his family claimed he was beaten to death.

Now Zheng is emerging in a new, high-profile role, as a leader of the office that will enforce Hong Kong's new national security law and, critics say, China's sweeping effort to stifle the city's pro-democracy movement with enhanced police powers and the threat of lifetime sentences.

Zheng's appointment signals that China plans a spare-no-prisoners approach, say opponents of the new law, which was written by Communist Party officials and took effect on July 1.

"Beijing will be adopting a very hard line," pro-democracy activist Albert Ho said. The appointment, he said, puts Zheng at the heart of a "super-power center" with Luo Huining, the prominent head of Beijing's liaison office, and with Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam as a figurehead.

"Zheng, of course, is notorious," Ho said.

Journalists have raised concerns over the vague wording of the national security law, which they say could be used to censor or harass them.

Police arrested hundreds of protesters after the new security law came into force, including at least 10 who were accused of violating the new law, which carries heavy penalties for anyone convicted of terrorism, separatism, subversion of state power or collusion with foreign forces.

Zhang Jian of the Shanghai Institute for International Studies said that despite Zheng's reputation, he was appointed to the post because he was the right person for the job.

"He is in a politically appointed position, which serves to execute the central government's policy. That, I don't think, has anything to do with his past experience," Zhang said.

"He has two deputies who are experienced [in managing national security issues.]," Zhang said. "He will play a bigger role in liaising and coordinating the city government's interaction with Beijing's liaison office in Hong Kong, the Chinese military's garrison in Hong Kong, the foreign ministry and central government agencies."

Hong Kongers Vow to Continue Pro-Democracy Pursuits Despite New Security Law

The law passed by China's legislature on June 30 and enacted in Hong Kong on July 1, punishes crimes of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces with up to life in prison

Zhang maintained that Beijing has no intention to squash opposition in Hong Kong. Instead, it aims to restore order and stability.

VOA's request for comment from Zheng's office and Beijing's liaison office went unanswered.

Hostile to foreign media

Zheng's previous response to dissent has also worried critics.

While mayor of Shanwei in 2011, Zheng cracked down on anti-corruption protests in Wukan, a fishing village that falls under the city's administrative jurisdiction.

Thousands gathered between September and December of that year in protest after local party officials sold land to property developers without properly compensating villagers, and after a negotiator elected to represent them died in custody.

Zheng supported mass arrests, including that of Xue Jinbo, the village representative who died, according to a rights lawyer and Zhuang Leihong, one of the village leaders.

Police told the family that Xue died of cardiac arrest. But relatives rejected the claim, saying bruises were found on his hands, feet and forehead. The family told journalists they believed he had been beaten to death.

After his death, residents barricaded the village and kicked out local party officials in the so-called "siege of Wukan."

The protests came at a time of wider pushback against corruption in China. But the Wukan demonstrations, which attracted attention from the international media, were like no others.

The siege led to a rare show of compromise by the Communist Party, which allowed villagers to hold free elections for their village council in 2012.

Zheng criticized international media coverage of the initial unrest, saying, "If foreign media are trustworthy, then sows can climb trees."

In 2013, he was appointed executive vice director of the Publicity Department of the Communist Party's Guangdong Provincial Committee.

New era of control

Whether Zheng will be able to act with such force in Hong Kong – a bigger stage that is under intensifying international glare – is a question local journalists are asking.

"Yes, he's a hardliner. He's tough. How far he would go with that kind of toughness in Hong Kong? No one knows at this point," Michael Chugani, a veteran TV host and columnist in Hong Kong, told VOA. "But it's not the person itself. The media is worried about the [national security] law because it's too ambiguous. And they don't know where the red line is."

Although Zheng's areas of responsibility don't extend to the city's media, Willy Lam, a Chinese political analyst in Hong Kong, said he suspected Beijing would enforce tighter control through the office and that there would be more censorship.

Lam said he was not optimistic about the city's future and media environment.

Earlier this month, libraries removed several books by pro-democracy authors, and Hong Kong declined to renew a work permit for a New York Times reporter. The Times announced this week that it planned to relocate part of its newsroom to South Korea.

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U.S. President Donald Trump this week signed legislation approving sanctions on any Chinese official who attempts to undermine Hong Kong's autonomy.

Village leader Zhuang, who fled to the U.S. in 2014, told VOA, "I don't think [Zheng] has any respect for democracy. He completely conforms to the dictatorship's mindset."

He added that Zheng is like a communist loyalist who "[has] no desire to look after citizens' interests, but to hush you up."

A rights lawyer, who spoke with VOA on condition of anonymity for safety reasons, said citizens think Zheng supports an "iron-fist rule."

The lawyer said he was hired to defend an elected village chief in Wukan in 2016 who was arrested on corruption charges, but authorities instructed the lawyer to "immediately go home" – an order he believes came from Zheng.

"This shows that he is ruthless and will stop at nothing to get what he wants," the lawyer said.

"He fully upholds the essence of the Communist Party's reign of terror – that is, 'My way or the highway.' "

At his inauguration in Hong Kong last week, Zheng said the office was committed to its mandate, and he called on other sectors in the city to help safeguard national sovereignty and security while promoting "one country, two systems."

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