Hong Kong’s National Security Law: Regressive or Progressive?

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Since the year 1997, Beijing has been asking Hong Kong to pass a national security law. There’s even an article in Hong Kong’s mini-constitution calling on it to do so. Hong Kong politicians have tried to pass the legislation before but faced large protests.

On 22 May 2020, Beijing took matters into its own hands. It proposed the bill for Hong Kong at the National People’s Congress (NPC), China’s rubber-stamp parliament. The law came into effect at 23:00 on 30 June 2020 an hour before the 23rd anniversary of the city’s handover to China from Britishers.

Hong Kong’s public or leaders do not have much say as the back door in its mini-constitution allows Beijing to make law for the city. The law laid out four categories of crime. These are secession, subversion against the Central Chinese government, terrorist activities, and collusion with foreign forces.

What is Law All About?

The law gives immense power to Beijing to override local laws and allows Chinese officials to operate in Hong Kong. The definition of crime is unclear and wide-ranging. For example, calling for Hong Kong independence now counts as a crime under “secession”. Moreover, damaging public property like protestors did last year, is now considered as a terrorist activity. The law imposes a maximum penalty of life imprisonment for all four crimes. As per the new law:

  • Beijing will establish a national security office in Hong Kong with Chinese officials. They will enforce the law and will be immune to Hong Kong jurisdiction.
  • The Hong Kong government will set up its national security committee, with a Beijing-appointed adviser. Their decisions cannot be legally challenged.
  • Hong Kong courts will oversee national security cases, but Beijing can take over cases in special circumstances.
  • A case that involves “state secrets or public order” will face a closed-door trial with no jury.
  • The new law overpowers the local ones.
  • The law applies to “any person” in Hong Kong. It includes foreign nationals violating the law overseas as well. This means that the law can charge them if they ever visit the Hong Kong city.

Background of Hong Kong City

Despite being a part of China, Hong Kong enjoys more freedom than any other Chinese city. It was a British territory until handed back to China in the year 1997. The handover agreement gave certain special freedoms to the city. This included freedoms of press, speech, and assembly, protected for at least 50 years, under a governance model called “one country, two systems”. Hong Kong also has its currency, the judicial system, identity, and culture. Its model is exactly opposite to China’s censorship and authoritarian rule in the mainland.

Back in 2003, the local government tried to pass a national security law but faced major backlash. This was because of the same fear that a national security law would infringe people’s freedom and crush their dissent. Then in 2019, another bill that would have allowed suspects to be extradited to the mainland faced protests. For more than six months, Hong Kong saw frequent violent pro-democracy, anti-government protests. This, in turn, posed a major threat to local leadership, who used tear gas and water cannon at times. By this time, Beijing ran out of patience and thus the central government took action into its own hands.

The Controversy Around the Law

The law provides vast powers to Beijing over Hong Kong and is a threat to the city’s political freedoms. Before even coming into force, the law had a chilling effect in the city. Many political parties disbanded, shops removed anti-government posters, and people deleted internet posts.

The law enables the Chief Executive to appoint judges to a panel dedicated to national security cases. This would harm judicial independence indeed, as it enables the government to interfere in the judicial process. Many people fear that the law would target freethinkers, and would detain them. With the introduction of broad categories of offences, it is unclear as to what deems illegal until prosecutions are brought. In the mainland, national security laws have been used to prosecute pro-democracy campaigners, human rights activists, lawyers, and journalists.

Critics say that the law could also cause media censorship, the removal of pro-democracy leaders. This, in turn, would damage Hong Kong’s reputation at the global level and hamper trades.

After-Effects of the Decision

In the month leading up the law’s passage, international leaders and activists widely criticized the new law. Days before the law passed, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced new visa restrictions on current and former Chinese officials who “were responsible for eviscerating Hong Kong’s freedoms.”

The US President Donald Trump also lashed out at Beijing for the law. He also revoked Hong Kong’s special status on Trade in May. The UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson also argued that the law “would curtail Hong Kong’s freedoms and erode its autonomy”. The leaders of the European Union (EU) expressed “grave concerns” over the law. Lawmakers in the European Parliament warned that China was violating its international commitments. Moreover, it proposed to bring China before the International Court of Justice.

Meanwhile, the Hong Kong government spokesperson insisted that the law will be applied selectively and will affect a tiny number of people. Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung said that the law targets terrorists and separatists only. “Basic rights of life and property for the majority section will be protected by the law. There is nothing for Hong Kong citizens to worry about in exercising these legitimate rights,” he added.

Conclusion

One cannot say anything about the law until it brings the first prosecutions. Yet, the incidents that followed suggest that the repercussions of the law will not be limited to individual cases. The city has been witnessing violent protests for months now. This included a vibrant opposition movement, unshackled media, and dynamic public discourse. The national security law would aim at all this and would surely take action. Whether the national security law would rebuild the city or destroy it forever is yet to be seen.


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