Chill Descends on Hong Kong as National Security Legislation Passes

On Tuesday, the National People’s Congress passed and Xi Jinping signed a national security law for Hong Kong, posing the most direct threat yet to the city’s semi-autonomous status, which had been guaranteed until 2047 under the Basic Law. Under the new law, mainland officials have authority to operate within Hong Kong to supervise crimes including secession and subversion, both of which have been used within China to crack down on dissenting views. The maximum penalty for such offenses in Hong Kong is now life imprisonment. As news of the law’s passage was reported, the government had not yet released its full text, following a drafting process which obscured many of the details of the new legislation. Xinhua published the full text of the law just as it came into effect, at 11 pm Hong Kong time.

At The New York Times, Chris Buckley, Keith Bradsher, and Tiffany May report on its passage:

The text provided a far-reaching blueprint for the authorities and the courts to suppress the city’s protest movement and for China’s national security apparatus to pervade many layers of Hong Kong’s society.

Ambiguously worded offenses of separatism, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign countries carry maximum penalties of life imprisonment. Inducing residents to hate the government in Beijing or Hong Kong is defined as a serious crime.

A new Committee for Safeguarding National Security will be authorized to operate in total secrecy and be shielded from legal challenges. Its officials will be given the task of scrutinizing schools, corporations, nongovernmental organizations, news companies, and foreigners living in Hong Kong and abroad. [Source]

At the Wall Street Journal, Chun Han Wong and Wenxin Fan report on how the law empowers Chinese authorities to operate within Hong Kong:

The law empowers China’s central government to supervise the policing of subversive activities in Hong Kong and, in some cases, intervene directly. Its provisions would supersede Hong Kong legislation should there be inconsistencies between them.

The standing committee of China’s legislature reserved the right to interpret the law, meaning Beijing has the final say over how it is implemented, rather than the city’s courts.

According to the law, much of the responsibility for enforcing national security falls to a special council formed by Hong Kong officials and led by the city’s chief executive. Their work will be confidential, with decisions not subject to judicial reviews.

A special unit within the local police force will handle national-security cases, and it can hire personnel from outside of Hong Kong. Beyond the police’s usual powers in criminal investigations, the law allows the special police unit to put suspects under secret surveillance with authorization from the city’s chief executive. [Source]

The law was drafted in secrecy, with the government only releasing a summary of the draft last week that omitted several details, leaving people in the dark about it’s reach and implementation. Upon announcing the passage of the law, even Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam acknowledged that she and most of the Hong Kong government had not seen the full text. Deutsche Welle reports

The law lists subversion against the Chinese government, terrorist activities and collusion with foreign forces as key criminal offenses. The maximum punishment for national security crimes includes life imprisonment. Past behaviors deemed illegal under the new law could also be used as a reference for criminal prosecution.

While Beijing announced its plan to introduce the law at the end of May, the legislative process was carried out behind closed doors. At the time, Hong Kong government officials were not given access to the full text of the law and even the city’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam admitted on June 23 that she hadn’t seen the full text.

“When you intend to pass laws that seriously affect the lives of seven million people, you make sure you have open consultation. You listen to opinions and you are ready to modify the content of it,” Hong Kong barrister Margaret Ng told DW. “This whole process is secretive because Beijing doesn’t want to hear any objection and Chinese authorities don’t want to give anyone a chance to criticize the law.”

[…] The national security law is the final piece of the puzzle for Beijing to fulfill its “one country, one system” in Hong Kong, according to Ng. “The central government’s special commission can command the Hong Kong government to do anything, which makes Hong Kong an agency for the central authorities… it will utterly change lives in Hong Kong,” she said, adding that there will now be “even less room for any kind of moderate stand in the city.” [Source]

Article 38 of the new law has become a focus of scrutiny, as it appears to extend its jurisdiction outside Hong Kong to non-residents, meaning anyone who carries out activities in any part of the world that the Chinese government deems to be in violation of this law could be prosecuted in Hong Kong. The article reads: “This Law shall apply to offences under this Law committed against the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region from outside the Region by a person who is not a permanent resident of the Region.”

Once the law was announced, the effect on Hong Kong society was immediate. Several pro-democracy campaigners, including Joshua Wong and Nathan Law, announced that they were withdrawing from the political party they founded, Demosisto, which was itself disbanding.

Shibani Mahtani of the Washington Post reports on the chill felt in Hong Kong:

[Joshua] Wong, who rose to prominence while still a student during the 2014 street protests calling for universal suffrage, announced Tuesday that he would end his association with Demosisto, the party he co-founded. Co-founders Nathan Law and Agnes Chow followed, and by the afternoon the entire party had disbanded.

[…] Other groups that support Hong Kong independence — a once-fringe idea that has gained traction at street protests, and a red line for Beijing — said they would cease operations in the city and move abroad.

“It is a complete change of the environment, not only for journalists, [nongovernment organizations] and scholars, but ultimately it will affect everybody in Hong Kong, including business,” said Ho-fung Hung, a political economist at Johns Hopkins University. [Source]

Even in the days leading up the law’s passage, many in Hong Kong began fleeing social media for fear their posts could endanger them under the new law. Kenji Kawase and Michelle Chan report for Nikkei Asian Review:

On Monday, a Twitter user named “Winnie” deactivated an account with the hashtag #hkprotest. “I’m not doing it because I feel I am at risk, it is out of an abundance of caution,” the tweet said, adding that “my heart goes out to the visible activists.”

Jimmy Lai Chee-ying, founder of the pro-democracy Apple Daily newspaper, wrote in his verified Twitter account on Monday that Wang Dan, a former Tiananmen student leader now living in exile in the U.S., had warned him and prominent activist Joshua Wong Chi-fung that they would be the first two targets after the security laws are enacted. “But I will not leave #HK,” Lai wrote.

[…] “The national security law is already exerting its impact even before it is enacted,” he said. While some companies in Hong Kong have expressed their support for the new laws, “many people have begun to delete their postings on Facebook.”

A high school teacher in his late 20s, who requested anonymity, explained to Nikkei why he recently changed his name on Facebook: “We are now so afraid that we could be sold out by our so-called friends online.” [Source]

Even retail businesses are wary of posting any political content. Chun Han Wong reports for the Wall Street Journal:

The national security law generally cast a chill over social media in Hong Kong, whose people have enjoyed greater online freedoms than their mainland counterparts, who are blocked from accessing international platforms such as Twitter and Facebook. In the days preceding the passage of Hong Kong’s national security law, a spate of pro-democracy accounts on Twitter bade farewell to their followers before going dark or moved on to new accounts.

“Let’s stay safe until we can come back out into the open again,” tweeted one user, who said they scrubbed their old protest account and created a new one.

The owner of a children’s clothing retail chain said he would remove a recently installed protester statue from one of his stores after receiving an eviction notice from the mall’s owners. “I don’t know what the national security laws could do to us,” the owner, Herbert Chow, told reporters Tuesday before the law was published. “This incident is typical of political suppression.” [Source]

In an interview with Hong Kong Free Press, legal scholar Jerome Cohen expressed just how seriously he was taking the potential impact of the new legislation:

Cohen, who spent 1963 to 1964 in Hong Kong interviewing refugees for his research on China’s criminal justice system, is particularly concerned about the impact of the sweeping law–expected to be passed in Beijing on Tuesday–on a city he loves.

“Nothing is the end of Hong Kong,” said the New York University law professor. “[But] this is the end of a Hong Kong of free speech and the end of a Hong Kong of due process of law.”

“It’s a dramatic change to the Hong Kong that we have known,” he said. “It will be more and more like the mainland.”

Asked what aspect of the law he was most concerned about, he said: “Just about everything.” [Source]

The head of Amnesty International’s China Team, Joshua Rosenzweig, said the law “represents the greatest threat to human rights in the city’s recent history,” while at Index on Censorship, Jemimah Steinfeld wrote that it “has already done exactly what it intended – it has paralysed pro-independence and pro-democracy advocates in the city.”

In preparation for the law’s enactment, the U.S. began the process of eliminating Hong Kong’s special trade status. David Brunnstrom at Reuters reports:

The Commerce Department said it was suspending “preferential treatment to Hong Kong over China, including the availability of export license exceptions,” adding that further actions to eliminate Hong Kong’s privileged status were being evaluated.

[…] “The Chinese Communist Party’s decision to eviscerate Hong Kong’s freedoms has forced the Trump administration to re-evaluate its policies toward the territory,” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said.

He said effective Monday, Washington was ending exports of defense equipment to Hong Kong and would take steps to end export of dual-use technologies to the territory. Such technologies have commercial and military uses.

“The United States is forced to take this action to protect U.S. national security. We can no longer distinguish between the export of controlled items to Hong Kong or to mainland China,” Pompeo said. [Source]

The U.K. and 26 other countries issued a joint statement on China’s actions in Hong Kong and Xinjiang:

Last week, a statement by the U.K. embassy in Beijing countering statements about Hong Kong in Chinese state media was removed from WeChat.

This came as a new coalition of global parliamentarians, called the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China, joined forces to discuss and strategize about how to respond to China:

Hong Kong writer Jessie Lau wrote in the Guardian about her experiences watching changes in her home city from afar:

With the passing of the national security law, the future feels bleak. Just this past month, many have been injured or arrested, a vigil commemorating the Tiananmen Square massacre was banned, and a bill making it illegal to insult the Chinese national anthem was passed. This week, the traditional July 1 pro-democracy march has also been banned for the first time in 17 years, with officials citing public health concerns and violence in previous demonstrations.

Upon every escalation, my friends and I ask one another: can we continue to adjust to these “new normals”? Can we ever be truly happy, or will we feel this heartbreak forever?

Still, I want to hope for the best. I want to have faith in those who say fears over the law are overblown, that there is still room for political compromise. I desperately want to believe that Hong Kong can remain a haven in China for dissidents, journalists and activists, the way it has been for decades since so many first-generation Hongkongers arrived as refugees to its shores. But every time I let myself have hope, something terrible happens. [Source]

Some in Hong Kong have planned a march on July 1, the 23rd anniversary of the city’s return to Chinese rule, despite an official ban on the annual commemoration.


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