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For Hong Kong, the year 2019 has been a monumental one. In April last year, the citizens of Hong Kong took to the streets to protest against the controversial extradition bill. This bill could have potentially undermined the judicial independence of Hong Kong and silenced the dissidents by exposing the Hongkongers to unfair trials by Beijing. In September, after 5 months of protests, the bill was withdrawn. However, this has led to a bigger uprising: one against Beijing as Hong Kong now demands full democracy and an inquiry into the police’s actions. With this, the protests continue. However, as the entire world got caught up by COVID-19, the protestors withdrew from the streets to escape the virus.
An opportunist Beijing swooped in during this period with the National People’s Congress (NPC) approving to impose a highly contentious national security law in Hong Kong on May 28, 2020. The legislation seeks to ban secession, subversion of state power, terrorism, foreign intervention, and allow mainland China’s state security agencies to operate in Hong Kong. This essentially means that the harshest criticism of China and the ruling party will be criminalised. Detailed legislation, however, still needs to be drafted and enacted, which could be done within the next few months. Critics fear it threatens the political and civil freedoms enjoyed by the semi-autonomous territory.
Hong Kong’s government has signalled support for the legislature and said it would cooperate with China to enforce the laws in Hong Kong. Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s Chief Executive, has also made a public statement reiterating China’s stance saying that the law will only target a handful of people involved in terrorism or subversion. On the other hand, the Hongkongers have retaliated with a series of protests despite fears of coronavirus. On a forum popular with protestors, LIHKG (often referred to as the Hong Kong version of Reddit), users have called for a ‘hundred-day war’, calling it the last opportunity to protest before the law comes into force.
Mike Pompeo, US Secretary of State, condemned the legislation by calling it a ‘disastrous proposal’. He also stated that Hong Kong is no longer autonomous from China and threatened to revoke the special status it enjoys in trade with the USA. In a joint statement, Australia, Canada, the UK and the US have expressed their ‘deep concern’ regarding the law. They have also called on Beijing to work with the Hong Kong government and people to find a “mutually acceptable accommodation”. Taiwan, Japan and Germany are also standing in solidarity with Hong Kong and have called for China to not undermine Hong Kong’s freedoms. As these countries line up in support of Hong Kong, Beijing is getting more suspicious that these foreign efforts aim to exploit its domestic weakness.
Hong Kong was handed over to China in 1997 by the United Kingdom after 150 years of colonisation. As a part of China, it operates under the ‘one country, two systems’ principle ensuring Hong Kong enjoys independence in its legislature, judiciary and economy. Set to expire in 2047, the arrangement allows Hong Kong to enjoy autonomy and freedom of speech and assembly. These freedoms, however, don’t exist in mainland China. To aid this, a document called the Basic Law – Hong Kong’s mini-constitution - was drafted which ensured Hong Kong its freedom and set out a structure for governance of the territory.
Article 23 of the Basic Law already calls for Hong Kong to enact national security laws to prohibit “treason, secession, sedition [and] subversion” against the Chinese government. While the article already exists as a part of the Basic Law, it has never been enacted. In 2003, a similar attempt was made by Hong Kong’s first Chief Executive, Tung Chee-hwa but was abandoned post mass protests. The next three successors never attempted to repeat this out of fear of protests, despite repeated warnings from China stating that they were obliged to do so. This time, however, China plans to enact the law without Hong Kong’s approval by pursuing an ‘unconstitutional’ method. The laws will be enacted through a provision that bypasses Hong Kong’s legislature and therefore, public debate and consultation.
The draconian legislation comes when China is already under the scrutiny of the international community after the coronavirus outbreak. It is said to be China’s way of tightening its grip on Hong Kong after a year of pro-democracy protests. Seeing how the legislation eerily echoes the mainland’s current legal framework, it is safe to believe that the drafted legislation will not be compatible with international human rights obligations binding on Hong Kong. Provisions regarding anti-terrorism and sedition under existing laws are already inconsistent with global standards.
Hong Kong has acted as a haven for dissent with its freedom of speech and assembly. The legislation, however, seeks to attack these freedoms and silence the loudest voice against China. Many are afraid that China will set up its institutions in Hong Kong under the garb of ‘national security’ that could introduce China’s law enforcement to the city. This could further affect the judicial system of Hong Kong. According to Professor Johannes Chan, a scholar at the University of Hong Kong, the security law poses a major problem. “Almost all trials involving national security are conducted behind closed doors. It [is] never clear what exactly the allegations and the evidence are, and the term national security is so vague that it could cover almost anything,” said the Professor.
The legislation, additionally, bans all “activities of foreign forces” interfering in Hong Kong’s affairs. People also worry that this could affect Hong Kong’s attractiveness as a business and economic powerhouse. This is a troubling aspect for an economy already struggling with tourism in the past year because of protests and COVID-19. This, however, isn’t the first step taken by China to counter the rising pro-democracy narrative in Hong Kong. In February 2020, China announced Xia Baolong, the man known for the clampdown on Christian churches in the Zhejiang province during 2014-15, as the head of the Hong Kong & Macau Office. China also revamped the reporting structure that crystalised the clear chain of command from Hong Kong to Beijing. Additionally, Luo Huining, known for executing Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign, was appointed to head the Chinese Liaison Office in Hong Kong. “They’ve got two guys who are not familiar with Hong Kong issues, and who have governed provinces in China in a heavy-handed way and think they can do the same in Hong Kong,” said Kwok, who has a law degree from King’s College, University of London.
Furthermore, on June 4, 2020, Hong Kong’s legislature passed a contentious bill that makes insulting the Chinese national anthem, illegal. Anyone who shall intentionally insult the anthem will face up to 3 years in prison plus fines worth at least $6,000. The bill was introduced by Beijing last year in response to the Hong Kong soccer fans booing at the anthem at the 2015 FIFA matches. Post the bill being passed, students at the Hong Kong University held a silent protest at the Pillar of Shame, a sculpture commemorating the victims of the Tiananmen crackdown. With a foggy future ahead, Hongkongers tread on a narrow road to democracy with no destination in sight. More clashes between the two parties are to be expected in the future, but it’s going to take a long time before either party backs down. Hong Kong’s pro-democracy fire will not burn out anytime soon. In a world where the global community blames China for the coronavirus outbreak and the USA further imposes tariffs on Chinese goods, China will do all it can to retain its power and reputation.
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