THE NIGHTMARE OUTCOME for Hong Kong of Beijing’s resumption of sovereignty in 1997 was that it would become just another large city in southern China.
That fate looked a huge step closer with the National People’s Congress reviewing a new security law for Hong Kong on May 22 that it is expected to approve by its conclusion on May 28.
The security law, which is required under the Article 23 of the Basic Law that sets outs the governance of Hong Kong’s ‘one country, two systems’ arrangements, would ban ‘treason, secession, sedition and subversion’ as well as foreign political organisations from conducting political activities in Hong Kong and Hong Kong political organisations from establishing ties in the opposite direction. It will also allow state security agencies to operate overtly in Hong Kong (they now operate covertly).
Moving the law forward now is a clear signal that Beijing has run out of patience with Hong Kong lawmakers’ inability to pass such legislation themselves. Not that its impatience was not already obvious. Thus Beijing is taking the law into its own hands, taking advantage of the NPC Standing Committee’s right to write law directly into the Basic Law that the Hong Kong administration then has to promulgate and implement.
Beijing is making no bones about its intent to have legislation in place so authorities can take ‘forceful measures’ to squash the mass pro-democracy protests that roiled the city last year and which were only brought to a halt by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Like all Chinese law, Hong Kong’s new national security law will have a broad, generalist framework. What will matter is how it is administered, and especially in a city like Hong Kong’s whose courts and legal system are distinct from the mainland. We have seen in other troublesome parts of China that what is locally held to be the expression of autonomous rights in the face of Party dictates can be readily labelled in Beijing as any or all of treason, secession, sedition and subversion, or even terrorism, also included in the draft security law.
Hong Kongers will be back on the streets, but Beijing’s discarding of the velvet glove, which has been in increasing evidence, may give any mass protests a different cast. The law’s provisions are even more severe than many Hong Kong activists had expected. More intimidatory tactics and the use of force against activists (and mainland dissidents based in the city) look certain.
Although Hong Kong does not have the death penalty, crimes endangering national security are capital offences in China.
The new law will also throw a dark shadow over September’s Legislative Council (Legco) elections in Hong Kong, which could deliver Beijing another bloody nose at the polls.
International reaction will be condemnatory, but whether this is followed up by action is debatable. The timing is provocative, given the deterioration of relations with the United States. The Trump administration has until the end of this month to certify Hong Kong’s autonomy from China under the Human Rights and Democracy Act that the US Congress passed last year. If it fails to do so, the city’s preferential US trading and investment status will be at risk.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, whose public support for Taiwan and sharp criticism of China over the pandemic and the recent arrests of Hong Kong pro-democracy activists infuriates Beijing, is signalling that that certification is far from certain. However, the mood in Beijing appears to be to drive ahead regardless, and to ride this moment of opportunity for an ascendant China. That is the bigger prize.
However, the two systems in ‘one country, two systems’ will then mean two systems run by Beijing, not one by Beijing and the other by Hong Kong. Because that is how it works in Chinese cities.