While the world was distracted with the coronavirus pandemic, China made a move on Hong Kong. The familiar sights of now masked protesters in the streets was triggered by a new national security law proposed by Chinese authorities for the territory. The ramifications of this bill, which bypasses local legislators, has provoked reactions around the globe for undermining democracy. Events that followed suggest Hong Kong is becoming a battlefield for the tensions between the remains of the US-led liberal order and the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) authoritarian regime.
Tailor-made to Hong Kong, the law criminalises acts of treason, secession, sedition and subversion. It was brought before the annual National People’s Congress (NPC) meeting, the legislative body controlled by the CCP, on May 22nd. National security is the bedrock underpinning a country’s stability, said NPC spokesperson Zhang Yesui.
The ex-British colony benefits from a semi-autonomous status, since its handover to China in 1997: its own legal, policing and education systems, and the guarantee of freedom of speech, religion and association. These are unique to the territory and unknown in mainland China.
Under article 23 of their mini-constitution, the Basic Law, Hong Kong should have a national security law of its own. Last raised in 2003, and due to widespread opposition for its negative effect on liberties, the local government has failed to pass such legislation. In light of last years’ violent mass protests that succeeded in shelving the extradition law proposal, China has run out of patience at the inaction of Hong Kong lawmakers and has decided to fill national security loopholes by its own initiative – passing a decree by adding it on to the Annex III of the Basic Law – without consulting the local government.
The undermining of the territory’s autonomy has caused commotion and outrage amongst Hong Kong residents who see that mainland authorities are reneging on the “one country, two systems” principle by imposing a measure that erodes democracy and human rights. Political opponents are muted in mainland China through related charges. The city could have mainland-style surveillance and security agents above local police. Protesters might face sedition laws instead of rioting charges, and there would be harsher sentences for indirect threats to the CCP. Many see this law an instrument for China to criminalise certain behaviours to root out CCP dissidents.
After last year’s turmoil died down with coronavirus-induced lockdown, the cause of protesters was reignited. On May 24th, hundreds of Hongkongers peacefully expressed their discontent. Demonstrators were rapidly met by police with water cannons and tear gas, leading to cat-and-mouse chases and 180 arrests.
Protesters held signs saying “Hong Kong independence” or even “heaven will destroy the CCP”, and chanted “liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our time”, slogans that could become illegal for being anti-government. Activists and journalists would also be at a higher risk of imprisonment. Yet, protesters show no sign of weakening resolve. A round of protests broke out on May 27th, against another law aiming to make a crime of disrespecting the national anthem, which led to police repression, firing pepper pellets and 360 arrests.
The grounds on which Chinese leaders conceived the law are precisely the clashes between police and protesters of the 2019 anti-government demonstrations. The destruction incurred, in terms of credibility and material damage, left the city ‘defenceless’. It prompted Chinese authorities to enforce what Foreign Minister Wang Yi calls a “national security legal system [which] must be established without the slightest delay”. The law should deter further protests and check the escalation of violence.
Not surprisingly, beyond ideological differences, Chinese officials also resent foreign interference in its affairs, notably by the United States. The proposed law includes punishing overseas forces “using Hong Kong to conduct separatist, subversion, infiltration and damaging behaviour”.
For the US, amid strained relations with China, the move is recognised as a “death knell” for Hong Kong’s autonomy, according to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. On May 27th, Pompeo announced the revocation of privileged trade and economic status of the city. He declared “Hong Kong will no longer be treated as autonomous from China, given facts on the ground”. Less favourable tariffs and export controls will have disrupting consequences business. President Trump later confirmed this, adding the imposition of sanctions and travel restrictions. He described the national security law as part of Beijing’s campaign to further control the territory.
Hong Kong is a regional financial hub due to its vicinity to China coupled with the benefits of free-market principles and an independent judicial system, mixing Chinese culture with Western values. The prospect of a national security decree putting these conditions at risk made investors fearful. On May 22nd, the stock market fell by 5.6%, its worst performance in five years.
Beyond investments, it’s unclear to what extent other actors involved in Hong Kong business can, like the US, afford leverage by imposing sanctions and embargoes with the coronavirus’ pandemic causing massive economic strain. Besides, where interdependence previously incentivised diplomatic relations, trade wars and the coronavirus pandemic disruption is making countries more prone to confrontation.
Internationally, there is concern. China’s action is perceived as a provocative turning point. In a joint statement, the UK, Australia, Canada, and the US condemn the law proposal for “dramatically erode Hong Kong’s autonomy and the system that made it so prosperous”. Additionally, when the US called for a Security Council meeting at the United Nations, China’s ambassador Zhang Jun, vetoed the request, declaring that “Legislation on national security for Hong Kong is purely China’s internal affairs”. China assertively ignoring international pressure possibly foretells a fallout with the West.
As it has become evident, the CCP is determined to restore public order in the city. The NPC passed the bill on May 28th with an overwhelming majority, a trigger for the “death of Hong Kong” as we know it. The Trump administration – with the prospect of reelection weighing on decisions – is equally resolved to punish China diplomatically and economically for attacking democracy. Caught in the crossfire of these manipulations are the people of Hong Kong as the atmosphere of political distrust heightens. To offer solidarity to its people, Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen announced a settlement plan for Hongkongers seeking an escape route from a potential reign of fear. Similarly, the UK’s Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab has pledged to extend visas and facilitate the path to citizenship for British National Overseas passport holders. However, Hongkongers are still in harms way and look to be headed towards another tumultuous summer.
Words by Elena Vardon