Does New National Security Legislation Signal the End of Hong Kong?

As the annual Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference and National People’s Congress meetings begin Thursday in Beijing, Chinese officials announced they would impose sweeping national security legislation in Hong Kong, bypassing the territory’s Legislative Council to criminalize “foreign interference,” secessionist activities, and subversion of state power. The move would mark the most direct takeover of Hong Kong’s political and legal systems by Beijing yet and would largely destroy the “One Country, Two Systems” administration that has granted Hong Kong some autonomy since returning to Chinese rule in 1997. The law would also be a direct blow to the protest movement which took to the streets almost a year ago in opposition to a proposed extradition law, later expanding their demands to call for full democracy and an end to Beijing’s encroaching power over the territory. In the Washington Post, pro-democracy lawmaker Dennis Kwok called the new law “the most devastating thing to happen to Hong Kong since the handover.” Shibani Mahtani, Anna Fifield, and Tiffany Liang report further for the Post:

The move is the boldest yet from Beijing to undercut Hong Kong’s autonomy and bring the global financial hub under its full control, as it works to rewrite the “one country, two systems” framework that has allowed the territory to enjoy a level of autonomy for the past 23 years.

After steadily eroding Hong Kong’s political freedoms, Beijing signaled that the national security law will be a new tool that allows it to directly tackle the political dissent that erupted on Hong Kong’s streets last year. The months-long and sometimes violent protests began last June and fizzled out only over public health concerns related to the coronavirus outbreak.

[…] Similar laws were proposed in 2003 and would have allowed authorities to conduct searches without warrants. But they were abandoned after mass protests and never picked up locally again.

“The social unrest last year showed that the Hong Kong government was unable to handle passing [national security legislation] on its own,” said Ng, a Beijing loyalist who has for years pushed for a similar law. “Hong Kong’s status will be sacrificed with or without this law if society is unstable due to the protesters’ violence.” [Source]

The BBC offers an explanation of the new law and what it would cover:

The issue has been introduced on the NPC agenda, under the title of Establishing and Improving the Legal System and Enforcement Mechanism of Hong Kong.

Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, the Basic Law, which provides the territory certain freedoms not available on the mainland, does require its government to bring in a security law. It had tried to enact the so-called “sedition law” in 2003 but more than 500,000 people took to the streets and it was dropped.

[…] Sources say the law will target terrorist activity in Hong Kong and prohibit acts of sedition, subversion and secession, as well as foreign interference in Hong Kong’s affairs.

Pro-democracy activists fear it will be used to muzzle protests in defiance of the freedoms enshrined in the Basic Law. [Source]

At the Hong Kong Free Press, Tom Grundy explains that the law would be introduced under Annex III of the Basic Law:

It is expected that the law will be added to Annex III of the Basic Law and promulgated by the Hong Kong government before September, bypassing the legislature, according to the source.

Article 18 of the Basic Law stipulates that no Chinese national laws shall be applied in Hong Kong save for those listed in Annex III of the mini-constitution. The NPCSC may add to the list after consulting its Basic Law Committee. The Annex III laws must then be effected through promulgation or by way of local legislation. Promulgation is done by the chief executive issuing a legal notice in the Government Gazette, allowing the national laws to be applied verbatim.

“Safeguarding national security serves the fundamental interests of all Chinese, our Hong Kong compatriots included,” said NPC spokesperson Zhang Yesui at a press conference, adding that such laws were “highly necessary” and the agenda details would be announced on Friday. [Source]

This graphic circulating online shows the characters for “One Country, Two Systems,” with the “Two” shrunken down to “One.”

Both the Washington Post and The New York Times have useful FAQs answering basic questions about the law and its significance for the future of Hong Kong.

The U.S. government, which is already at odds with Beijing over a number of issues including trade, the origins of the coronavirus pandemic, and the status of Taiwan, spoke out sharply against the new law. Gary Cheung of the South China Morning Post reports:

Beijing’s move also comes against the backdrop of rapidly escalating tensions between the United States and China. The US has until the end of this month to certify Hong Kong’s autonomy under the Human Rights and Democracy Act of 2019.

It will make an assessment on whether Hong Kong remains suitably autonomous from China, a prerequisite for extending the city’s preferential US trading and investment privileges.

Warning earlier that it would be a tough report, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Wednesday launched a verbal salvo against China and expressed Washington’s concerns over Hong Kong. Pompeo, a former CIA director, called out the recent arrests of leading Hong Kong activists such as Democratic Party founder Martin Lee, and entrepreneur and media owner Jimmy Lai, describing how they had been “hauled into court”.

“Actions like these make it more difficult to assess that Hong Kong remains highly autonomous from mainland China,” Pompeo said. “We’re closely watching what is going on there.” [Source]

On Thursday, two U.S. Senators introduced a bill to “sanction Chinese officials and entities who enforce the new national-security laws in Hong Kong, and penalize banks that do business with the entities,” according to the Wall Street Journal.

At The New York Times, Keith Bradsher, Austin Ramzy, and Tiffany May report on the response to the announcement among pro-democracy lawmakers and activists in Hong Kong:

On internet forums and chat groups frequently used to organize protests, some people expressed concerns about whether their past conversations could implicate them should the new laws be passed. Others urged users to download virtual private networking services to cloak their identities, while some debated whether to delete their chat histories and disband the discussion groups.

“Hong Kong independence is the only way out,” chanted a group of protesters gathered in a luxury shopping mall on Thursday.

Users flocked to LIHKG, a Reddit-like forum popular with protesters, to trade jokes about how the impending legislation would change life in the city. Some users said they would swear allegiance to China with oaths laced with references to the protests, while others bid farewell to the city as they knew it.

Nathan Law, a pro-democracy advocate, urged protesters not to give up. “At this time last year, didn’t we believe that the extradition law was sure to pass? Hong Kongers have always created miracles,” he wrote on Facebook. [Source]

Since last year’s street protests largely ended with the outbreak of the coronavirus, the Hong Kong government has taken a series of steps aimed at quieting pro-democracy dissent and further strengthening Beijing’s sway over the territory. As protesters have recently begun to regroup ahead of several important dates–including the annual commemoration of the June 4th crackdown in 1989, and the July 1 anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover to Beijing–authorities extended social distancing measures put in place for COVID-19, effectively banning any mass gatherings. In recent weeks, more than 230 protesters have been detained in Hong Kong, including veteran activist and legislator Martin Lee and 14 other prominent pro-democracy activists. The Hong Kong government also announced it would introduce legislation criminalizing insults to China’s national anthem, which is often booed at Hong Kong soccer games and other events. Shibani Mahtani at the Washington Post reports on the government’s moves to preempt any upcoming protests:

With pro-democracy protests reemerging as fears of the novel coronavirus ease, the coming weeks will probably reveal whether China’s approach can work, or if shutting off peaceful means of resistance will drive more people to the streets and to more-extreme tactics.

Authorities in recent days have tightened their grip on Hong Kong’s legislature, curtailed the city’s constitutional right to freedom of assembly and a free media, and cracked down on high-profile activists who have campaigned for full democracy for the former British colony.

In the quest to neutralize opposition, Beijing’s allies in Hong Kong’s legislature forcibly seized control Monday of a committee that determines what bills are brought before lawmakers. That move clears their path to push through laws sought by Beijing, starting with a bill that would make it a criminal offense to disrespect China’s national anthem.

[…] On Tuesday, Hong Kong authorities extended pandemic-related rules limiting public gatherings to effectively ban, for the first time, a June 4 vigil marking the anniversary of China’s massacre of student demonstrators in Tiananmen Square in 1989. [Source]

Responses to to proposed national security legislation were swift and sharp on Twitter:

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