(July 1): China’s government asserted broad new powers over Hong Kong to rein in those who criticize its rule -- from pro-democracy protesters to news agencies to overseas dissidents -- in a new national security law that risks endangering the city’s appeal as a financial hub.
The legislation passed by lawmakers in China and signed by President Xi Jinping allows for potential life sentences for crimes including subversion of state power and collusion with foreign forces. It extends to actions committed by anyone, whether or not they are Hong Kong residents, anywhere in the world and appears to cover even non-violent tactics employed by protesters in a wave of unrest that gripped the former British colony last year.
China had flagged its intent to impose the law on Hong Kong for weeks, exasperated by the persistent protests which began in opposition to a local bill to allow extraditions to the mainland, which was ultimately dropped. Even so, it had released few details in advance of the planned legislation.
The text of the law, which runs to 66 articles across 18 pages, was made available late Tuesday right as it came into effect and so far in Chinese only. It prompted immediate criticism, adding to the concerns of pro-democracy groups that China’s control over the city will become all-encompassing.
While Li Zhanshu, chairman of China’s legislature, repeated assurances the law would “punish extremely few while protecting the majority,” the U.K. accused Beijing of going back on its promise to preserve Hong Kong’s “high degree of autonomy” under an arrangement known as “one country, two systems.” Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he was “deeply concerned” about the move, while the Trump administration vowed additional “strong actions” if Beijing didn’t reverse course.
Hong Kong’s business community, democracy activists and Beijing-appointed leaders alike were relegated to largely being observers as Chinese lawmakers completed the carefully orchestrated rollout of the legislation that will shape the city’s future. Chief Executive Carrie Lam, who had defended the law even as she acknowledged she hadn’t seen a full draft, said the local police force and Department of Justice were ready to enforce it.
“I am confident that after the implementation of the National Security Law, the social unrest which has troubled Hong Kong people for nearly a year will be eased and stability will be restored,” Lam said.
The measure to punish acts of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces came on the eve of the anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to Chinese rule in 1997. The organizer of an annual July 1 march that drew more than half a million people last year lost a last-minute appeal Tuesday to hold the event after being denied permission by police, who cited coronavirus risk and the potential for violence.
Some in the pro-democracy camp vowed to march regardless, and despite the threat of arrest. Prominent activists, including former student leaders Joshua Wong and Agnes Chow, cut ties with political groups Tuesday in an apparent attempt to avoid implicating each other. Opposition lawmakers have expressed concern the law will be used to bar them from seeking office in a legislative election in September.
“It’s worse than I feared,” pro-democracy lawmaker Claudia Mo said early Wednesday. Mo cited provisions suggesting “that there could be secret or in-camera trials, Beijing agents here can enjoy immunity from everything, that if one is found guilty you could be chucked out of public office, that they will ‘strengthen management’ of foreign media in Hong Kong.”
Hong Kong police were prepared to begin enforcing the law as soon as Wednesday, news outlet HK01 reported, citing an unidentified official. Waving independence flags or banners and shouting pro-independence slogans would be considered an offence under the law, HK01 said.
President Donald Trump warned last month that if Beijing didn’t back down the U.S. would start rolling back Hong Kong’s preferential trade status, while the U.K. and Taiwan have offered new paths to residency for the city’s 7.5 million inhabitants.
On Monday, the Trump administration made it harder to export sensitive American technology to Hong Kong, suspending regulations allowing special treatment to the territory over dual-use technologies like carbon fibre used to make both golf clubs and missile components. And on Tuesday the Federal Communications Commission designated Huawei Technologies Co. and ZTE Corp. as national security threats, a step toward driving the Chinese manufacturers from the U.S. market where small rural carriers rely on their cheap network equipment.
“There is broad, bipartisan concern about the behaviour of the government in Beijing,” Republican Senator Pat Toomey from Pennsylvania, who is sponsoring legislation that could target banks that deal with officials responsible for eroding Hong Kong’s autonomy, told Bloomberg Television on Wednesday morning in Asia. He also said he expects bipartisan interest in measures that would allow persecuted Hong Kongers a way to seek refuge in the U.S.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said no country had the right to interfere in Hong Kong’s affairs, threatening “necessary retaliatory measures” against the U.S. “The U.S. wants to use the so-called sanctions to obstruct China’s legislative process to safeguard national security in Hong Kong. Such an attempt stands no chance of succeeding,” Zhao said.
The law brings yet more uncertainty as Hong Kong faces its deepest recession on record after last year’s protests and the global pandemic. Unemployment has risen to a 15-year high, while investors are putting money elsewhere. Some expatriates and Hong Kong residents have said they’re considering leaving the city.
Hong Kong’s freedoms have become increasingly tenuous as Xi grows more confident in China’s ability to withstand foreign pressure and Hong Kong protesters embrace more radical positions such as independence. Beijing’s steady moves to integrate the city boiled over into historic and sometimes violent protests last year, after Lam attempted to pass a bill allowing extraditions to the mainland.
Chinese officials have said the security law is necessary to ensure peace following last year’s chaos, which included vandalism of subway stations, regular use of Molotov cocktails and a brief occupation of Hong Kong’s international airport.
“Beijing is determined to signal strength and resolve even when doing so might harm China’s economic and reputational interests in the U.S., Europe and now India,” said Rush Doshi, director of the Brookings China Strategy Initiative. “This approach, however, clearly reduces the space for bargaining with others.”
Surveys show a majority of Hong Kong residents oppose the law. The American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong said more than 80% of the companies it surveyed were concerned or very concerned about the legislation -- although some companies have begun to endorse the law after HSBC Holdings Plc came under pressure for remaining silent and backed it.
China didn’t publish the full draft law before its passage or allow a public debate, which is required under the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini-constitution. The process also bypassed Hong Kong’s elected Legislative Council.
The new law goes further toward revising the “one country, two systems” framework designed to protect Hong Kong’s liberal institutions and Common Law legal system. The legislation will let Chinese security agents operate in Hong Kong, allow China to prosecute some cases and give Lam the power to pick judges to hear national security matters.
“Laws that would have fundamental differences to our way of life have been passed thousands of miles away by people we know nothing about, with contents of this legislation which we know nothing about,” pro-democracy lawmaker Dennis Kwok said at an evening briefing. “That’s no way to treat a civilized, educated international city such as Hong Kong, but this is it. The way they’ve done it is the most ruthless, undignified assault on the freedom, human rights and the rule of law of Hong Kong.”