GP Insights # 397, 16 August 2020
Jimmy Lai Chee-ying, the publisher of one of Hong Kong's best-selling newspapers, Apple Daily, was arrested on 10 August for alleged "collusion with a foreign country or external elements". Several others from the daily as well as prominent pro-democracy activist Agnes Chow Ting were also arrested the same day on similar charges. They were released on bail over the following days.
What is the background?
First, the arrests took place under the National Security Law (NSL), imposed by Beijing early in July. Hong Kong activists had seen off an attempt by Hong Kong's own administration to adopt national security legislation in 2003 following a protest rally by more than 500,000 people. But in the aftermath of the even more spectacular protests throughout 2019 and early this year sparked by an attempt by Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor to legislate an extradition treaty that included extraditions to mainland China and violent clashes with the police, Beijing seems to have lost its patience.
Second, under the NSL, passed by the Standing Committee of China's rubber-stamp parliament, the National People's Congress on 30 June, "secession", "subversion", "terrorism" and "collusion with foreign forces" incur maximum penalties of life imprisonment. Within hours of its coming into force, shops and restaurants began to take down posters and banners proclaiming their support to pro-democracy and pro-human rights causes, while public libraries and bookshops began removing "sensitive" texts from their shelves.
What does it mean?
Those who said that the imposition of the NSL by Beijing meant the end of "One Country, Two Systems", "A high degree of autonomy" for the territory and "Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong" – which had been mantra ever since the signing of the Sino-British Agreement of 1984 that envisaged the handover of Hong Kong's sovereignty from Britain to China – stand vindicated.
Add to this the postponement of elections to the Legislative Council which had been scheduled for 5 September – and which could have led to a massive show of strength by pro-democracy candidates – by a whole year on the specious pretext of the COVID pandemic, the people of Hong Kong stand deprived of protections envisaged under the Basic Law, the mini-constitution that governs Hong Kong since its handover in 1997.
The office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and other international bodies have warned that the draconian NSL could lead to "discriminatory or arbitrary interpretation and enforcement which could undermine human rights protection". Global human rights organization Amnesty International's Asia-Pacific Regional Director, Nicholas Bequelin, said: "The authorities' allegation of 'foreign collusion' against Jimmy Lai and others – so far without explanation – highlights how this overly broad and vague provision of the national security law can be used to prosecute those with different political views."