Beijing’s announcement last week that it would pass a national security law for Hong Kong—bypassing the city’s own legislature—has attracted international condemnation and reignited mass protests in the city, with plans for more in the coming weeks.
Following Beijing’s move, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared on May 27 that Hong Kong is no longer autonomous from the mainland, putting Hong Kong’s special trading status with the United States in jeopardy.
It’s unclear whether the U.S. administration will proceed to revoke Hong Kong’s special privileges, which would require an executive order by the president. The state department hasn’t responded to a query from The Epoch Times as of press time.
Critics fear that the law, which bans acts of “secession, subversion, and terrorism activities,” would be used by Beijing to suppress and persecute dissenting voices. Local pro-democracy activists and lawmakers note that national security laws are frequently used to prosecute and jail dissidents in the mainland.
The law also opens up the possibility of Beijing’s security agencies setting up operations in Hong Kong.
“Hong Kong would be overrun with Chinese government agents, and those who are accused of violating the national security law would likely not be able to defend themselves in an impartial court,” Thor Halvorssen, chief executive officer of Washington-based nonprofit Human Rights Foundation, told The Epoch Times.
The Chinese regime’s action was not entirely unexpected, according to Wilson Leung from the Hong Kong-based Progressive Lawyers Group.
“Beijing’s plan is always to have absolute control over what it considers to be its rightful areas. It regards Hong Kong as its rightful territory, and no one else should have a say, including the Hong Kong people,” Leung told The Epoch Times.
The last attempt to legislate a similar anti-subversion bill was in 2003, which was aborted after half a million Hongkongers took to the streets in protest.
Halvorssen said the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) action was an attempt to divert attention away from its mishandling of the CCP virus outbreak and other internal problems.
“Beijing is behaving like a bully and doing so in a way that says to the international community, ‘We no longer care,’” Halvorssen said.
Meanwhile, the regime has “lost its patience” with the pro-Beijing allies in Hong Kong, an outcome likely exacerbated by years of delay in enacting Article 23, an anti-subversion bill; the success of last year’s Hong Kong protests against a proposed extradition bill; and the pro-democracy camp’s sweeping district election win, Halvorssen said.
“Hong Kong’s population is loudly communicating that they wish to be autonomous. The Chinese government concluded that it must take matters into its own hands instead of waiting for their allies in Hong Kong to legislate,” he said.
On Wednesday, thousands again came out to protest against the law and another controversial bill that would criminalize disrespecting the Chinese anthem. The police arrested at least 300 by 6 p.m. local time.
“The knife is in the regime’s hands. Any time now they’ll stab us in the neck,” Pastor Chan told The Epoch Times at the protest in Causeway Bay.
The “crux” of the issue, according to barrister and leader of the pro-democracy Civic Party Alan Leong, is keeping apart the mainland’s and Hong Kong’s legal systems.
While Hong Kong’s legal system observes the rule of law, the mainland court serves to “enhance the CCP’s ruling power,” Leong told The Epoch Times.
On May 25, the Hong Kong Bar Association issued a statement (pdf) highlighting “a number of worrying and problematic features” in the draft law. Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, the Basic Law, grants the NPC the power to enact laws only in issues pertaining to “defense and foreign affairs as well as other matters outside the limits of the autonomy” of Hong Kong, and not national security, it argued.
“The present proposal … really breaches every provision of the original arrangements,” Leong said.
Maggie Chan, a Hong Kong delegate to China’s rubber-stamp legislature, the National People’s Congress (NPC), proposed that a national security court be set up in the city, where cases are only heard by Chinese judges.
“This is totally not acceptable and is introducing an extrinsic element to the Hong Kong judiciary system,” Leong said.
Chen Daoxiang, commander of China’s military garrison in Hong Kong, warned via Chinese television that China’s military was ready to “defend national sovereignty.”
While city leader Carrie Lam tried to assure Hongkongers on May 26 that the law will only target “a handful of people” involved in terrorism or subversion, Wilson Leung from Hong Kong’s Progressive Lawyers Group said the claims were “absolutely wrong” and “complete propaganda.”
With mainland security agents coming in to enforce Beijing’s will, Hong Kong would soon see “mainland style detentions with all the abuses that we’ve seen on the mainland,” he said, noting the ongoing persecution of the spiritual group Falun Gong and mass detention of Uyghurs in Xinjiang concentration camps.
“It’s the nature of dictatorships to say that: Oh, don’t worry about these terrorism laws or national security law. If you haven’t done anything wrong, we won’t target you,” he said. “But if you see what has happened in China, it is actually the complete opposite.”
Beijing is making a “major mistake” by endangering Hong Kong’s status as a global financial hub, Law Ka-chung, an adjunct professor at the City University of Hong Kong’s economics department, said in an interview.
Investor confidence in Hong Kong’s rule of law and autonomy from the mainland—already at record lows following last year’s extradition bill crisis—will likely keep going on a downward trajectory, he said.
Law speculated that Beijing may not strictly enforce the security law right away—a move that would create a sudden shock that could crash the local economy. But the toll of China’s draconian terms will show in the long run, he said.
He also predicted that large-scale emigration out of Hong Kong could take place, similar to when the territory was handed back to China in 1997.
The law will likely bring long-term instability and social rise as Hong Kong’s economic growth binds more with the mainland: Mainlanders may dominate senior positions inside companies, while foreign participation in high-value industries such as accounting, insurance, and brokerage firms, could significantly scale back, according to Law.
With Pompeo’s announcement, the city’s international status—tethered to its distinct identity from mainland China—is at stake.
Previously, under U.S. law, Hong Kong had special privileges including in the areas of trade, investment, and immigration.
The city is also one of the United States’ major export markets for wine, beef, and agricultural products.
“Once this [law] really goes down the path that the CCP is threatening to go, it’s going to agitate and move a lot of the business community who are already alarmed at this point,” said Samuel Chu, founder and managing director of Washington-based advocacy group Hong Kong Democracy Council. “Once you really spook the business community, you’re going to see the cost of making moves to protect themselves long term.”
Much of China’s foreign direct investment is funneled through Hong Kong. It won’t be easy for Beijing to find a replacement should Hong Kong’s status fall. “Beijing had the agenda to build up Shanghai long ago”—since the early 2000s, Law said. “But after 10 to 20 years, they still couldn’t have Shanghai to be the international financial center.”
How Hong Kong’s future pans out has consequences for the world, said Leung, the Hong Kong lawyer.
“Hong Kong is really at the forefront of the struggle between the free world and dictatorial world,” he said. “If Hong Kong falls, then you can be very sure that the next will be Taiwan … then very soon, you’ll see it [CCP’s influence] spreading throughout the world.”
Annie Wu contributed to the report.