SHANGHAI -- With its COVID-19 outbreak waning, nationalism rising at home and its antagonists in the Trump administration preoccupied by the pandemic and election-year politics, the Chinese Communist Party is boldly moving to crush a dangerous obstacle to its authority.
By imposing a new national security law on Hong Kong, Beijing signaled its determination to squelch a fierce anti-China protest movement -- and demolished the longstanding firewall protecting the high-flying territory's human rights and freedoms from interference from the authoritarian mainland.
For Xi Jinping, the most powerful Chinese leader in decades, the strategy is yet another show of strength as he seeks to overcome accusations of mishandling the early days of the coronavirus outbreak late last year. After getting the virus under control but still dealing with its economic fallout, another summer of chaotic, headline-grabbing protests would mar China's efforts to portray itself as a global leader.
It is a startling moment playing out against a resurgence of Chinese nationalism and a confidence by Beijing that -- despite diplomatic consequences -- it can assert its influence over a territory that for years has challenged its vision of domestic harmony.
The legislation would grant authorities broad powers to crack down on dissent and appears aimed at stopping fresh demonstrations as Hong Kong emerges from a months-long coronavirus lockdown. Critics call it a power grab that ends the autonomy that China promised Hong Kong would enjoy for at least 50 years when it took back the territory from Britain in 1997.
"The intensification of Beijing's crackdown on Hong Kong is a sign that when the Chinese Communist Party feels its core interests are threatened, it is willing to take steps that were previously seen as unthinkable," said Benjamin Bland, research fellow at the Lowy Institute in Australia and author of "Generation HK: Seeking Identity in China's Shadow."
The decision also creates another flashpoint in China's deteriorating relationship with the U.S., one that many fear is edging toward a new cold war.
As the Trump administration and Chinese officials trade misinformation and insults over the origins of COVID-19, talks on resolving a bitter trade dispute have collapsed. U.S. law exempts Hong Kong from tariffs on Chinese goods imposed during the trade war, but last year, in support of the protests, the U.S. introduced a provision that would revoke Hong Kong's special trade status if it loses its autonomy from mainland China.
American lawmakers from both parties have criticized the security law and called on the Trump administration to hold Beijing accountable. Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo, who has delayed a decision on Hong Kong's status, condemned the law Friday, calling it "a death knell for the high degree of autonomy Beijing promised for Hong Kong."
"This will be a test of what the U.S. policy is now toward Hong Kong and toward containing China," said Eliza Lee, a professor of politics at Hong Kong University. "Within Hong Kong there are people who are looking up and waiting for the U.S. to respond."