HONG KONG - China’s plan to impose a national security law on Hong Kong to prevent and punish acts of “secession, subversion or terrorism activities” that threaten national security has drawn fire from critics and ordinary Hong Kongers alike, with many lamenting this is the end of the free and open city that the world has known.
The plan also would allow Chinese national security organs to set up agencies in Hong Kong “when needed.”
China has long indicated its intention to bring Hong Kong under tighter control -- it warned in a 2014 policy white paper that it has “comprehensive jurisdiction” or “comprehensive power to rule” over Hong Kong.
The millions-strong, often violent protests last year sparked by a controversial extradition law shocked the Chinese leadership and in recent months, Chinese officials have unequivocally ordered the city to enact legislation to bar subversion, separatism, and foreign interference to plug the national security “loopholes” that threaten the country’s stability. In the communique of a key Communist party meeting in November, the Fourth Plenum, Beijing told the city to “perfect” its legal system to safeguard national security.
Critics say Beijing’s efforts to incorporate Hong Kong into its national security system through bypassing the city’s parliament amount to a breach of its promise of the “one country two systems” policy enshrined in the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration that is meant to guarantee Hong Kong a high degree of autonomy.
At the opening of China’s annual parliamentary session Friday, Wang Chen, vice chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress, said a draft version of the proposal had been submitted to the legislature for deliberation. In the proposal, the parliament would authorize the standing committee to formulate laws on “establishing and improving the legal system and enforcement mechanisms for [Hong Kong] to safeguard national security” to prevent and punish acts in Hong Kong seen as subversion, terrorism, separatism and foreign interference, or “other acts that seriously endanger national security, as well as activities of foreign and external forces that interfere in the affairs of Hong Kong.”
He also told the parliament that “when needed,” China’s national security organs will set up agencies in Hong Kong to “fulfill relevant duties to safeguard national security.”
He said relevant national security laws will be implemented through Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, the Basic Law’s Annex III, which allows national laws to be applied to the city.
However, Martin Lee, a drafter of the Basic Law and founder of Democracy Party, pointed out that the Basic Law mandates that national laws to be applied to Hong Kong in Annex III should be “confined to those relating to defence and foreign affairs” and “other matters outside the limits of the autonomy” of Hong Kong.
Under the article 23 of the Basic Law, Hong Kong is meant to enact laws “on its own” to prohibit “treason, secession, sedition [and] subversion” against the Chinese government, and other acts including the theft of state secrets and foreign political organizations engaging in political activities in the city.
Given the widespread opposition over the years, though, Hong Kong’s inability to legislate such a law of its own accord made it necessary for China to take action, Wang told the parliament.
“More than 20 years after Hong Kong's return, relevant laws are yet to materialize due to the sabotage and obstruction by those trying to sow trouble in Hong Kong and China at large, as well as external hostile forces,” Wang said.
“Efforts must be made at the state level to establish and improve the legal system and enforcement mechanisms for [Hong Kong] to safeguard national security, to change the long-term ‘defenseless’ status in the field of national security,” Wang said.
He justified China’s move by saying “the increasingly notable national security risks in Hong Kong have become a prominent problem” and protests activities have “seriously challenged the bottom line of the ‘one country, two systems’ principle, harmed the rule of law, and threatened national sovereignty and security.”
The drastic move caused jitters across Hong Kong, among ordinary Hong Kongers and the business community.
“The national security law is clearly pushing Hong Kong towards an end. Apart from the impact on freedom of speech … it also tells us how useless the Legislative Council is because the National People's Congress standing committee can totally bypass it,” said a 17-year-old student who did not want to give his name. “If it can happen once, there is a high likelihood that the same thing will happen again for other laws.”
Many said the move was a wake-up call that provided fresh impetus for the year-old anti-government movement that has largely stalled amid the COVID-19 pandemic and authorities’ intensifying clampdown.
“We cannot deceive ourselves anymore,” said a post on LIHKG.com, a site popular with protesters in the anti-government movement.
“Many people have felt discouraged and helpless, while feeling there was nothing they could do except to watch Hong Kong die, then this national security law came along and our fighting spirit has returned!” said another post. “I know this is the end of Hong Kong, but it’s also the beginning of the Hong Kong people.”
Michael Davis, a Global Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center and former law professor at the University of Hong Kong, said Beijing’s imposition of the national security law “clearly flies in the face of the Basic Law.”
Beijing’s hardening policies also show that it has not understood what caused discontent in Hong Kong in the first place, he said. “It has long been clear that most protests in Hong Kong are driven by Beijing’s interference that weakens Hong Kong's autonomy and the rule of law. Instead of taking on board that message, they have continually doubled down on their interference.”
China’s move is also expected to lead to the flight of capital and talent from the Asian financial hub, and some wealthy individuals have already begun to scout for investment options elsewhere, bankers and headhunters told Reuters.
Hong Kong’s main stock market index tumbled the most in almost five years after Beijing’s plan was revealed. The benchmark Hang Seng Index dived 5.6%, or 1,349.89 points, to 22,930.14 on Friday, its biggest decline since July 2015.
The jitters have also caused some to want to emigrate.
“We have kids, we really have to think about leaving,” said a parent on an online chat group.