GP Insights

GP Insights # 358, 23 May 2020

China announces National Security Laws on Hong Kong
N Jayaram

What happened?
China has announced that it would impose national security laws on Hong Kong, criminalizing acts of secession, subversion and foreign interference, among other things. An announcement to this effect was made during the ongoing annual session of the National People's Congress. 

Under the proposed laws, Hong Kong would be expected to "establish an organization and enforcement mechanism to ensure national security". Should the local government fail to do so, Beijing may set up its own national security bureau to operate in Hong Kong. 

"This is the end of Hong Kong," said pro-democracy legislator Dennis Kwok, following Beijing's announcement. Hong Kong's Hang Seng index dropped by nearly 5.6 per cent in reaction on 22 May, and the global stock markets rocked too.

What is the background?
Article 23 of the Basic Law, the post-1997 mini-constitution of Hong Kong states that it "shall enact laws on its own to prohibit any act of treason, secession, sedition, subversion against the Central People's Government, or theft of state secrets, to prohibit foreign political organizations or bodies from conducting political activities in the region, and to prohibit political organizations or bodies of the region from establishing ties with foreign political organizations or bodies."

In 2003, the Hong Kong government had sought to enact such legislation but confronted firm resistance from civil society. More than half a million people took to the streets on 1 July that year. Incidentally, parts of the world had just been emerging from the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) epidemic, and the government's move was seen as being that much more insensitive in view of the economic downturn Hong Kong had suffered. After one of the pro-establishment parties developed cold feet, the bill fell through. 

However, the demand for such laws never went away and had been aired by officials in Beijing and its supporters in Hong Kong over the years. 

When in 2019, the Hong Kong government sought to introduce an extradition law to facilitate the handover of fugitives to mainland China among other jurisdictions, massive protests broke outlasting several months until severe police action, and the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic led to demonstrators being barred from rallying. Unproven allegations of "foreign forces" stoking the protests fuelled renewed calls for national security legislation.

What does it mean?
Clearly, the authorities in Beijing have little patience to wait for what has, in fact, been an obedient government in Hong Kong to do their bidding. Moreover, the legislation would have had to be vetted by Hong Kong's Legislative Council, albeit one dominated by pro-Beijing members: It would have entailed a modicum of public discussion.

The move to bypass the local legislature and government through the promulgation of a law covering Hong Kong immediately sparked criticism from the pro-democracy camp and worldwide that it breached the principles of "one country, two systems", "a high degree of autonomy" and "Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong" that had been promised in the years ahead of the 1997 handover of the former British-ruled territory to Chinese sovereignty. In fact, the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984 covering Hong Kong's handover had envisaged that the territory would retain its way of life for 50 years until 2047. Beijing's latest demarche is yet another indication of its willingness to ride roughshod over international treaties.

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