China-US Climate Blows Hot And Cold

PRESIDENT XI JINPING, it now seems, will attend the two-day virtual summit on climate change that US President Joe Biden will be holding at the end of this week, a week in which Xi is also due to make a major speech on Tuesday at the Boao Forum on Hainan Island.

The primary purpose of the Boao Forum is investment-related. A blue-chip roster of US business leaders and investors will be visibly in attendance to validate China’s recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic. However, Xi is also likely to use the occasion to announce new targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, thus stealing some of Biden’s thunder later in the week.

Xi’s attendance at Biden’s summit follows the trip to Shanghai last week by Biden’s climate envoy, John Kerry, to meet his Chinese counterpart Xie Zhenhua. The pair agreed that the two countries would cooperate to tackle global climate change by reducing emissions and work towards a successful next meeting of the UN’s Climate Change Conference in Glasgow in Scotland in November.

The outcome of the Xie-Kerry meeting was a welcome, if not an unexpected, point of surface harmony in what is currently an otherwise deeply dissonant relationship. There is no disguising the discreet but real struggle for global leadership over climate change between the two countries. In that regard, Beijing is repositioning itself following Biden’s reversal of former President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the field.

Normal service was resumed on Friday with the foreign ministry spokesman criticising criticism of China by Biden and visiting Japanese prime minister Yoshihide Suga.

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China’s Economy Powers On But Not Untroubled

Chart of China's quarterly GDP growth 2019-latest

China’s economy expanded by 18.3% year-on-year in the first quarter — the first of the new five-year plan — newly released official data show.

However, it is a record devoid of much meaning as the first quarter last year was ravaged by the pandemic.

If there is anything to be taken from the numbers, it is that the momentum built up in the fourth quarter of last year has carried into this. However, the quarter-on-quarter growth was a weaker-than-expected 0.6%. 

Supply-driven industrial production and exports are sustaining growth. Consumption still lags, pointing to the growth rate moderating as the year progresses.

Winding back the stimulus that powered the recovery will be a delicate balancing act for policy makers, especially if the uptick in inflation proves to be more than transitory or debt problems cause an unexpected shock.

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Censorship Gets Better, Automated And Cheaper

Screenshot of paper entitled Research on Sensitive Information of Internet News published in the April 2021 edition of the Journal of Chinese Computer Systems

WORD REACHES US of a breakthrough in the ability of artificial intelligence (AI) to filter information online with a degree of accuracy previously unachieved.

According to a paper in the Journal of Chinese Computer Systems, entitled Research on Sensitive Information Recognition of Internet News, researchers at Shenyang Ligong University and the Chinese Academy of Sciences claim their new AI is 91% accurate in blocking ‘harmful information’.

In addition, unlike previous AI, which has achieved 80% accuracy rates, it does not need to be trained by humans but can be self-taught through deep machine learning. Internet companies employ armies of humans to check and censor content manually, augmentations to older software systems that rely on keywording and are only 70% accurate.

The researchers also say their AI can keep up with the expanding volume of content on the internet and the rapid evolution of online language used to get around content filters. The use of homonyms to avoid sensitive words is a particular challenge for censors of Chinese text.

The AI is partially based on software Google developed more than five years ago to let it understand the context in which users of its search engine were using search terms.

While there is a universal need to censor online content that promotes criminal activity, terrorism, pornography and human trafficking, China also has a particular demand for blocking political content deemed sensitive.

The AI advance should cut the cost of censorship and opens up a potentially lucrative export market for automated censorship systems, decreasing the economic price of political repression for authoritarian governments.

While no censorship system is ever likely to be 100% effective, better-than-90% effectiveness would be good enough to keep mass political movements from taking hold.

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Ant Knuckles Down

Logos of Ant Group and Alipay

ANT GROUP HAS applied to become a financial holding company. That will put Jack Ma’s fintech group spun out of Alibaba under central bank oversight. Thus authorities tighten their grip a significant notch over the sprawling fintech sector.

The somewhat imposed decision on Ant will require it to restructure itself as a payments services company. That was what regulators told the company to do after forcing the pulling of Ant’s proposed blockbuster initial public offering (IPO) last November. However, the first go-round did not pass muster. The central bank and the three other top financial regulators hauled in Ant executives on Monday for further talks.

Following those, the People’s Bank of China announced the company will now adopt its new structure as part of a ‘comprehensive and feasible rectification plan’ following its coming under strict regulatory oversight last year.

Critically, Ant has agreed to decouple its Alipay mobile payments app from other financial services it offers, such as unsecured online lending via its Huabei virtual credit card and Jiebei consumer loans. The company says its focus will be on enabling micro-payments for consumers and small-and-medium-sized enterprises, which is how it started. As part of this, it will set up a personal credit reporting company and improve consumer data protection. A separate (regulated) Ant consumer finance company will run Huabei and Jiebei.

The company also says it will improve its consumer data protection, rectify monopolistic behaviour and shrink the assets under management of Yu’e Bao, its giant money-market mutual fund. These changes all toe the new party lines for reining in the internet giants and scaling back highly leveraged lending.

Ant also contritely says it will plan its growth ‘within the national strategic context’ and ‘contribute to the new development paradigm of domestic and international circulations’. This reinforces the view this Bystander expressed previously about the platform companies being marshalled into becoming a ‘strategic height’ of the economy and a competitive advantage for China internationally.

The freewheeling days for fintech are now over. Ant’s affiliate Alibaba’s record 18.2 billion yuan ($2.8 billion) antitrust fine was further warning that Ant and all the other fintech companies will have to behave like traditional financial institutions and do as their regulators tell them in line with national policy objectives.

Where this leaves Ant’s IPO is uncertain. The restructuring will make the group less valuable than the $34 billion it was initially hoping to raise. Alipay has more than one billion users in China and holds approaching three-fifths of the $17 trillion mobile payments market, well ahead of its closest rival Tencent’s WeChat Pay’s two-fifths. That dominant market share tied together a vast and detailed trove of consumer data collected across Alibaba and Ant.

Weakening the ability to use Alipay across all its services will reduce those market shares, which is also the intent of new draft measures announced in January to curb market concentration in online payments.

Update: The State Administration for Market Regulation has told 34 internet platform companies, including Tencent, ByteDance, Pinduoduo, Baidu and, to get any anti-competitive practices sorted out within the next month — confirmation, as if it was needed, that the crackdown on Ant Group and Alibaba is neither all about Jack Ma nor over.

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Alibaba Antitrust Fine Is As Instructive As Punitive

Screenshot of Alibaba website

THE ANTITRUST FINE on Alibaba is hefty — a record in yuan terms –but not as punitive as it could have been.

The 18.2 billion yuan ($2.8 billion) that the e-commerce giant will have to pay for abusing its market dominance tops the $975 million imposed on the US chipmaker Qualcomm in 2015 but is equivalent to only 4% of Alibaba’s revenues. Qualcomm’s was 8%, and the maximum penalty authorities can impose is 10%. Further, the State Administration for Market Regulation (SAMR) took a narrow view of Alibaba’s revenue, counting just those from its e-commerce businesses.

None the less, this amounts to more than just a slap on the wrist. It also reinforces a message that has been repeatedly sent for several months.

Authorities are reining in the power of the tech platform giants, among whom Alibaba and its sprawling empire of associated businesses is the poster child. They thrived in a sector that never had the moderating influence of large state-owned enterprises. Alibaba was disingenuous when it said in its post-fine letter of contrition:

Alibaba would not have achieved our growth without sound government regulation and service, and the critical oversight, tolerance and support from all of our constituencies have been crucial to our development.

It and its main rival Tencent grew massive because of the absence of state guidance. Party leadership is being plain that the Party calls the shots, no matter how large the tech platforms’ social and economic influence grows. The da y’s of light regulation are over. The tech sector will become subject to the same level of regulatory oversight as any other.

Attacking Alibaba and its main rivals on antitrust grounds – the specific charge against Alibaba is that it restricted competition by forcing vendors on its Tmall and Taobao online shopping platforms to deal exclusively with it — provides consumer-protection gloss to the actions. A dozen companies were fined last month for antitrust violations, including Tencent and Baidu (the other two of the ‘big three’ Chinese internet giants) and the ride-hailing app Didi Chuxing.

Financial regulators are also concerned that the rapid expansion of fintech — services such as AliPay — beyond payments systems is creating new avenues of unregulated shadow banking that will add to the overall leverage within the economy that already greatly concerns authorities. Preventing what is termed ‘disorderly expansion of capital’ is now policy. Regulators forcing Alibaba’s spun-off fintech, Ant Group, to pull its proposed blockbuster $37 billion initial public offering last November was another indication of that.

Jack Ma, Alibaba’s founder and China’s most prominent and outspoken tech billionaire inside and outside the country, has been particularly in authorities’ crosshairs. Last week, his Hupan University, an elite business academy that teaches entrepreneurship, was made to suspend new enrolments. Elite educational establishments outside Party control are viewed with official distrust.

Alibaba has also been pressed into divesting its media assets. It owns video streaming and sharing sites in China and Hong Kong’s leading English-language newspaper, the South China Morning Post.

More worrying is that the crackdown may bring restrictions on its ‘secret sauce’: its ability to combine the many businesses it has diversified into, from physical retail to food delivery and cloud computing, with its core e-commerce and social platforms, thus turbo-charging its ability to cross-sell.

In November, SAMR released draft rules to prevent price-fixing, predatory pricing and unreasonable trading conditions. They also included restrictions on using data and algorithms to manipulate the market, which could curtail the platforms from data cross-subsidisation to target specific customers. That would be a wounding blow to the big platforms’ business models.

It may also bring them closer into line with national economic objectives. By making the platform companies exit non-core operations and forcing more competition in their core business, Beijing may be co-opting them to the cause of global leadership in high-tech industries. Without access to the easy money from monopolistic practices, the tech giants will instead undertake more fundamental R&D and innovation to support national technological self-sufficiency. Or at least, so the theory goes.

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IMF Again Ups China Growth Forecast

Screenshot of IMF's World Economic Outlook, April 2021

THE INTERNATIONAL MONETARY FUND has upped its forecast of China’s growth rate this year to 8.4%, an increase of 0.3 percentage points from its January forecast.

The latest number is included in the IMF’s newly published World Economic Outlook. However, the Fund is holding its 2022 forecast unchanged at 5.6%.

For the global economy as a whole, the IMF has raised its forecast to 6% for this year and 4.4% for next, increases of 0.5 and 0.2 percentage points respectively from January’s forecasts.

Beyond 2022, the Fund expects global growth rates to moderate further, in part because China’s growth will be slowed by ‘necessary rebalancing to a sustainable growth path’, with Beijing scaling back the forceful public investment central bank liquidity support that facilitated the early and robust recovery from Covid-19.

However, the IMF expects only a mild tightening in 2021 of last year’s sizeable fiscal expansion, while monetary policy is expected to remain supportive this year and gradually tighten to around neutral in 2022.

Prominent among the downside risks to the forecasts are tensions between the United States and China that remain elevated on numerous fronts, including international trade, intellectual property, and cybersecurity.

The Fund also makes a passing nod to the medium-term demographic challenge that will face China (and others) as its population ages:

Global growth is expected to moderate to 3.3 percent over the medium term—reflecting projected damage to supply potential and forces that predate the pandemic, including aging-related slower labor force growth in advanced economies and some emerging market economies.

The need to clear the middle-income trap is bearing down fast on Beijing.

Update: At the press conference for the IMF’s latest Fiscal Monitor, fund officials repeated the need for structural reform:

Quite importantly, going forward, China can use fiscal policy to facilitate the transformation to a new growth model in China, a model that relies less on investment in public infrastructure, relies more on private consumption and support to households. In that context, strengthening social safety nets in China and reforming the tax system are important opportunities for progress.

Nothing new in the IMF’s line, or much out of line with Beijing’s own long-term plans. The question remains timing.

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China Demonstrates Hands-On Non-Interference In Myanmar

CHINA REGARDS THE military coup in Myanmar as an internal affair, and thus not one on which it needs to express any deviation from its default position on non-interference.

Given Beijing’s long-standing ties to the Myanmar military, it is safe to assume that its sympathies do not lie with the overthrown elected civilian government’s supporters. Its blocking of any action at the UN Security Council, such as imposing sanctions over the increasingly bloody February 1 coup, confirms that. So does Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s latest commitment to working with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, as ASEAN espouses non-interference in member states’ affairs.

That is not to say that China does not have interests in the country. One is the 800-kilometre-long twin oil and gas pipelines that run from Kyaukpyu, the deepwater port that China is building on Myanmar’s Bay of Bengal coast, to Kunming, the provincial capital of Yunan in southwestern China. The pipelines, like Myanmar itself, are a key part of the Belt and Road Initiative. It gives China a short cut to the Indian Ocean, avoiding the chokepoint that is the Strait of Malacca.

The port and the pipelines are centrepieces of the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor, which passes through the rebellious Shan state. China plans several projects in the Shan and neighbouring Kachin states, which lie along the entirety of its strife-ridden border with Myanmar and where China periodically tries to broker peace.

These projects include three cross-border economic cooperation zones, the Myitkyina Industrial Zone in Kachin state and the railway from the Shan border town of Muse to Mandalay, which will provide a through rail link from Kunming to both Kyaukpyu and Myanmar’s largest city, Yangon, where China is also building residential, commercial and industrial facilities.

Many Chinese enterprises are also involved in resources extraction, including jade mining. China is Myanmar’s largest trading partner. The total value of two-way trade was $12 billion in 2019-20, with China running a $1.3 billion trade surplus, according to Myanmar’s Commerce ministry. There is also a lot of cross-border smuggling.

Anti-Chinese sentiment –never far from the surface in days of the former junta — has risen across Myanmar. In the face of threats to blow up the oil and gas pipelines, Beijing reported moved troops to its border opposite Muse at the beginning of the month, although it is unclear what they will do beyond providing a show of force. Moving troops into the country would require a tortuous twisting of the definition of non-interference.

So far, Beijing has just sought assurances from the Myanmar military about the pipelines’ security. With some cause. Fighting between the Kachin Independence Army and Myanmar’s military is reported across Kachin and northern Shan states, where Naypyidaw’s rule is mostly in name and requires repeated military crackdowns.

The Brotherhood Alliance, which includes the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, Ta’ang National Liberation Army and Arakan Army, all of which are based along the Chinese border, says it is ready to join forces with all ethnic minorities to fight the regime if the killing of protesters continues.

The military has for decades fought ethnic armed organisations across Myanmar. Intensification of those conflicts was always likely to be part of the coup’s fallout, a development that Beijing will find difficult to ignore. Quietly, it will continue to provide its old friends in Myanmar’s military with diplomatic, financial and military support while continuing to warn against external interference in an internal affair.

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Rolling Over The Rule Of Law

Screenshot of website of Essex Court Chambers, London

OUR MAN AMONG m’learned friends in London draws our attention to a Financial Times report on the chilling effect resulting from China’s retaliatory sanctions on the United Kingdom for that country’s comments about Xinjiang. Our man is concerned because of nascent signs of self-censorship among lawyers wary of antagonising Beijing and how it suggests a broadening of the push to co-opt and coerce the commercial world into muting international criticism of Beijing’s policies in Xinjiang and, indeed, Hong Kong.

The nub of the story is that last month China sanctioned several UK members of parliament, academics and individuals for ‘gross interference’ for their comments about Xinjiang. The list included Essex Court chambers, a group of some 90 barristers, four of whose number had provided a legal opinion in January for the Global Acton Legal Network, a non-profit working with the World Uyghur Congress and Uyghur Human Rights Project.

The sanctions bar those named from doing business with Chinese individuals or entities, ban them and their families from entering China, Macau and Hong Kong and freeze their China-based assets.

Essex Court barristers specialise in commercial and financial litigation, arbitration and public international law. Chambers are a particularly English institution. They are not a law firm as it would be recognised elsewhere. They are the offices of barristers who are self-employed providers of expert legal opinion and advocacy in court under the English legal system. They are instructed case-by-case by solicitors, the other qualified lawyers in the English system, who deal directly with clients.

These distinctions may be lost in China. After the sanctions were announced, Essex Court removed from its website a news item about the four barristers who had written the opinion about Xinjiang and pointed out that as independent barristers, no other member of the chambers would have been involved in writing it. The China Daily headlined its report on that ‘Barristers in retreat on lies over Uygurs’ and reiterated the charge that the opinion had used ‘the same tone as that of some Western politicians and media outlets’.

Our man says solicitors will now be wary about instructing Essex Court or any set of chambers whose barristers take on work for groups or individuals critical of China. Arbitration work in China via Hong Kong’s legal system has been a lucrative source of business for UK lawyers. Similar work in Singapore and the tax haven and brass nameplate islands of the Caribbean will now be at risk.

The General Council of the Bar, the professional association for barristers in England and Wales, has called the sanctions ‘an attack on the rule of law’. London lawyers are now wondering who might be next and if or when, in that incremental way of pushing back Beijing now employs, the tactic might be employed against the big City of London and international law firms.

The Financial Times quotes an unidentified member of Essex Court saying that theirs is ‘the first set of chambers to be made subject to these sanctions . . . but it may well not be the last’. Our man adds that if Beijing can cower UK and US law firms, even just by making them shy off taking on cases and clients that would displease China, the notion of the independence of the rule of law in Wester legal systems would be weakened. It would be a significant victory in the fight to undermine Western values.

Addendum: Chen Yixin, Secretary-General of the Central Political and Legal Affairs Committee, gave a speech at a recent study session on Xi Jinping Thought on Rule of Law. 

Among selected passages from the speech:

Marxism believes that politics determines the rule of law, and the rule of law serves politics. The practice of the rule of law at home and abroad shows that there is politics in the rule of law, there is no rule of law divorced from politics, and there is no rule of law that transcends politics.

Equally as blunt:

From China’s national conditions and reality, we will take the road of rule of law that suits us, never copy the models and practices of other countries, and never take the path of the so-called ‘constitutional government’, ‘separation of powers’ and ‘judicial independence’ of the West.


As China moves closer to the center of the world stage, we must accelerate the strategic layout of foreign-related rule of law work, coordinate domestic and international governance, and better safeguard national sovereignty, security and development interests.

No one can say that Beijing is hiding its intention.

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Stop The Press

AS A RULE, authoritarian governments seek to corral the foreign press posted to their country into presenting them as they would like to be seen or indeed believe that they are. When that does not match the reality, unable to censor foreign journalists as they can domestic media, governments can co-opt foreign correspondents or confront them.

In keeping with Xi-era front-foot diplomacy, Beijing has chosen the the latter course. However, it has also started driving the foreign press — or at least the Western elements of it seen as most critical of the Party — out of the country. In keeping with its pragmatic, push-until-there-is-pushback approach to everything international, from criticism over Hong Kong to island-building in the South China Sea, it has been steadily intensifying the harassment and intimidation of foreign journalists.

Over the past year or so, and especially since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, approaching a score of US, UK and Australian journalists have left China. The latest isJohn Sudworth, a Beijing correspondent for the UK public broadcaster, the BBC, and his wife, Yvonne Murray, of the Irish broadcaster RTE. Their departures follow the expulsions of reporters from the New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal, and the flight under diplomatic protection of two Australian reporters fearing for their safety. 

China has also increased the harassment and intimidation of foreign news organisations’ Chinese employees and sources while Australian national Cheng Lei, who worked for China’s state television network, was detained last August. 

Detentions, expulsions, and harassment, which also extend to independent researchers, will lead to more caution when reporting and researching China. It will not stop coverage, critical or complimentary, which will continue from outside the country. However, the loss of the nuance, colour and access that on-the-ground reporting provides will exacerbate speculation and distrust.

The Sudworth family’s hasty departure to Taipei appears to have been to forestall an exit ban being imposed as ‘some Xinjiang residents’ were going to take legal action against the BBC for Sudworth’s reporting on the region. Beijing officials have been particularly furious in denouncing the BBC’s coverage of Xinjiang. In February, BBC World News was banned from broadcasting in China, despite it being little seen there, prompting London’s tit-for-tat ban on the state-owned television channel CGTN. 

Foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying cast Sudworth’s departure as confirmation that he accepted his reporting was unfounded.

If he was worried about being sued by people in Xinjiang, he should have stayed to face the litigation if he knew for sure he hadn’t produced any fake news or rumors. In China, a place with rule of law, no innocent people will be wronged…But he chose to run. Why? Why did he leave in such a hurry? What’s he worried about? What’s he afraid of? There is only one explanation: a guilty conscience.

She was particularly pained by Sudworth’s description of Uighur vocational education and training centres as re-education camps, technical schools as places to conduct Uyghur cultural isolation and family separation, and efforts to renovate mosques as attempts to demolish mosques.

Beyond the fury of not having China’s version of events in Xijiang accepted as gospel, Hua also tapped into another strand of the China’s narrative, victimhood.

We must point out that China is the victim when it comes to BBC’s disinformation targeting China. In recent years, BBC has fabricated a large amount of immoral fake news and disinformation, especially on COVID-19 and Xinjiang, which has not only caused direct damages to the interests of some people in Xinjiang, but has also cast a severe negative influence on China’s national image.

The deterrence of an already small cadre of foreign journalists and researchers working in the country is about more than controlling the information flow reaching international audiences. All nations seek to do that in some degree through a global army of government press and information officers and public relations specialists and consultants. The Party has been campaigning steadily against Western values, including the centrality of a free press to democracy, as part of an infowar strategy in which the Chinese governance system is pitted against Western democracy, with the latter appearing in the worst light. 

The press in the Chinese system is an agency of the state, itself an agency of the Party. Journalists are overwhelmingly state employed and subject to government-dictated reporting guidelines. They are designated as propaganda workers whose job is not ‘to speak truth to power’ but to guide the thoughts of the people correctly.  

Foreign ministry spokesperson Hua made an unintended reference to that when she told foreign correspondents that they should:

When reporting on China, verify first and present the facts and materials we provide in a balanced way in your reports. 

Independent journalism exists in China but is discouraged with harsh prison sentences. Reporters without Borders, a press freedom NGO, says China ranked 177th out of 180 in its 2020 World Press Freedom Index and is the world’s biggest captor of journalists with at least 120 detained according to its most recent count. 

Jailing Western foreign correspondents, if not researchers, would come with political friction and would be counterproductive in the effort to delegitimise them as purveyors of ‘fake news’. Voluntary or forced departures are a readier option for stifling reporting from inside China that goes against the narrative about China that Beijing would like to establish internationally. Efforts to develop that narrative will get ramped up this year, so the marginalisation of Western journalism will continue.

In contrast to China’s domestic censorship across all media, Western social media platforms’ openness lets Beijing spread widely abroad what the EU has called targeted influence operations and disinformation campaigns. With the large US tech companies in their domestic politicians’ crosshairs, that may be the next battleground in this particular war.

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The Final Chill Descends Upon Hong Kong

THE CONVICTION OF two of Hong Kong’s most prominent pro-democracy advocates, octogenarian pro-democracy politician Martin Lee and media billionaire Jimmy Lai, is another step in the ordered dismantling of the city’s freedoms.

They were convicted of unlawful assembly during the massive 2019 street demonstrations along with five other former lawmakers. A district court upheld the prosecution’s argument that the constitutional guarantee of freedom of assembly is not an absolute right in Hong Kong.

All seven had pleaded not guilty. They are out on bail and due back in court on April 16 for sentence hearings. Two others who had pleaded guilty to the same charges have been handed five-year prison terms. Lai, who remains in jail, faces separate charges under the National Security Law that carry much longer prison sentences. Some 100 people have been arrested under the law since it was enacted last June.

Earlier this week, the National People’s Congress Standing Committee enacted sweeping changes to the city’s electoral rules intended to ensure that Hong Kong’s Legislative Council (LegCo) is run by ‘patriots’.

The new rules cut the number of LegCo seats elected by popular vote to 20 from 35 while increasing the total number of seats to 90 from 70. A police national security unit will vet all candidates. The new rules also embed an overwhelming Beijing-affiliated majority on the committee that selects the chief executive.

These changes will let Beijing swap out the current political elite in Hong Kong, in which it clearly has lost faith. Whether they will throw up a new leadership establishment for the city that is more competent as well as more compliantly pro-Beijing, is uncertain.

The twin goals of putting Hong Kong’s formal political institutions under the firm control of the Party (via electoral reform) and of ending the deadlock seen in the city’s politics and the dissent seen on its streets over the past decade (via the National Security Law) have now been all but secured.

Most of Hong Kong’s outspoken activists are now in jail or self-exile abroad, the latter not being an option for the seven most recently convicted as their bail conditions include not leaving Hong Kong.

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