National Security Law Descends on Hong Kong

New details already generating fear

On June 21, some people in Hong Kong watched a partial eclipse of the sun. Now they fear the final eclipse of Hong Kong’s autonomy via the national security law passed by the National People’s Congress in May. Details of the law have been made, with likely implementation on June 30 — just before the anniversary of Hong Kong’s July 1 return to China, in which Beijing promised 50 years of autonomy.

The website of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office announced details of the law, which stipulates that where there are differences with Hong Kong law, China’s rubber-stamp parliament, the National People’s Congress (NPC), will do the interpreting. Beijing will have jurisdiction over “an extremely small number” of people deemed to threaten national security “in exceptional cases” in Hong Kong.

The Hong Kong government recently put up signs all over the territory (above), saying, “National Security Law: Preserve One Country, Two systems, Restore stability.” Although Hong Kong’s “one country, two systems” ends in 2047, many in Hong Kong as well as the US government say it is effectively dead.

“It is to be expected that once Beijing had announced it would introduce the State Security Law, this would be implemented as quickly as possible.  Standard playbook for any competent autocracy,” said Steve Tsang, director of the China Institute of the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London.

“Indeed, strictly out of the playbook of Machiavelli – if a prince must do something widely unpopular and likely to engender strong hostility, resistance, and resentment, do it decisively and as quickly as possible.  This is one of those cases,” Professor Tsang said.

The security law will come into force in Hong Kong on the final day of a special NPC meeting in Beijing from June 28 to 30, said several sources. As a sign of the urgency with which the Chinese government is rushing the bill, the NPC meeting is only about a month after the last NPC meeting in late May, which is unusual given that they normally occur once every two months.

In 2003, then Hong Kong chief executive Tung Chee-hwa tried to pass a security law but failed in the wake of a protest estimated at half a million people. If such a law were to be enacted in Hong Kong’s Legislative Council (LegCo), it would require three readings with extensive consultation periods, said a China watcher who declined to be named. “Now a highly controversial law without public consultation is superimposed on top of the Hong Kong system, (which) will create untold damage.”

If the security law becomes effective on June 30, it will kill two birds with one stone, said a risk consultant who declined to be named. By activating the law on June 30, the law will be used to restrict the demonstration planned for July 1, he explained.

The security law can be used to disqualify pro-democracy candidates from the LegCo elections on September 6, if the law is in force before the nomination period from July 18 to 31, the risk consultant added. Indeed, the law is expected to be used to ensure a pro-China LegCo, Asia Sentinel reported on June 10.

“First things first, it is intended to bar pro-democracy candidates from running for the Legco election in September. Thus the law has to be in place before nomination starts,” said the China watcher.

The Hong Kong government has hinted that whether a candidate supports the security law will be a benchmark to judge whether he or she is eligible to be a candidate.

Fear

Fear of the security law has killed a plan to hold a general strike. A June 20 poll fell far short of the 60 percent of votes needed to justify a citywide strike by 30 labor unions on July 2, said two sources, a message that people’s appetite for protest in Hong Kong is waning, said one of the sources.

Human rights and press freedom will be respected in Hong Kong, according to the details of the security law, a contention greeted with suspicion by pro-democracy forces.

“It will be ‘human rights with Chinese characteristics’.  Protecting human rights and press freedom are not compatible with what the national security law proposes to do in general terms,” said Tsang.

“Respect” for press freedom and human rights is not what Beijing means, said the risk consultant. “It means they will tolerate it with caveats.”

This will lead to growing self-censorship among foreign journalists as the lines are left ambiguous, the risk consultant predicted.

“All these so-called “human rights protections” will just vanish into thin air. Being one of the prime targets, I will probably be subject to secret trial, black jails, televised confession, and tortures,” Joshua Wong Chi-fung, one of the Hong Kong protest leaders, tweeted on June 20. “While the law claims Beijing will intervene ‘in specific circumstances,’ this loosely defined term is subject to China’s political needs.”

The 23-year old Wong has announced plans to run in the LegCo elections. Because he has been calling for support for protestors from Western nations like the US, he could be potentially disqualified from the LegCo polls under the security law which criminalizes collusion with foreign forces.

The Hong Kong government will administer the security law in most cases, except for the “extremely small minority” people regarded as a threat to state security. But the suggestion that a “special and few” cases will be subject to the jurisdiction of mainland China is a serious and worrying one, said the Hong Kong Bar Association in a press release, raising the question whether Hong Kong residents hauled over the border for trial. The prospect of trial in the mainland was the reason that many people protested against the Hong Kong government’s attempt to push an aborted extradition bill last year, the association pointed out.

Under the security law, the Chinese government will set up in Hong Kong a security agency to monitor suspects, gather information, investigate cases and ‘guide’ Hong Kong police.

The suggestion that the new security agency will “supervise” local law enforcement agencies in national security cases is unprecedented and lacks constitutional support, said the Hong Kong Bar Association. It will create a parallel law enforcement system where the security agency may not be subject to the legal scrutiny and accountability that is in place for the law enforcement agencies in the city, said the association warned.

The security agency will not be that different from the Special Branch set up by the British in Hong Kong and Singapore to combat communist subversion when the British ruled these cities, said a British expatriate who declined to be named. The Special Branch protected British interests in Hong Kong, and the security agency will protect Chinese interests in Hong Kong, he pointed out.

Unless and until Hong Kong’s independent judiciary is visibly crippled, the security law’s effect on Hong Kong’s status as a financial hub will be limited, Tsang said. Even if that point comes, Hong Kong will not cease being a financial center, just diminished, he predicted. Shanghai and Shenzhen do not have independent judiciaries yet they function as financial centers although they don’t have the top-tier international status of Hong Kong, Tsang added.

“It would be safe to assume the banks and businesses want law and order as money hates conflict,” said Bill Majcher, president of EMIDR, a global corporate risk advisory firm.