Wednesday 1 July 2020
China's sweeping new national security law for Hong Kong has sharply divided opinion inside and beyond the city. Photo: AFP

China imposed a sweeping national security law on Hong Kong on 30 June, dramatically tightening its grip on the semi-autonomous city in a historic move decried by Western nations as a threat to the financial hub’s freedoms. Described by Beijing as a “sword” hanging over the heads of those endangering national security, the law took effect hours after it was signed by President Xi Jinping and just six weeks since it was first unveiled.

Fed up with pro-democracy protests that rocked the city last year, China’s top lawmaking body enacted the legislation following closed-door deliberations that kept details secret until its passage. 

 

Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam poses with Justice Secretary Teresa Cheng and Security Secretary John Lee (R), holding copies of the new national security law. Photo: AFP

 

The details

The law gives Beijing jurisdiction over “very serious” national security crimes, with offenders facing up to life in prison.

The controversial law also empowers China to set up a national security agency in the city, staffed by officials who are not bound by local law when carrying out duties.

The new suite of powers radically restructures the relationship between Beijing and Hong Kong, toppling the legal firewall that has existed between the city’s independent judiciary and the mainland’s party-controlled courts.

It outlaws four types of national security crimes: subversion, secession, terrorism and colluding with foreign forces to endanger national security.

The text gave three scenarios when China might take over a prosecution — complicated foreign interference cases, “very serious” cases and when national security faces “serious and realistic threats”. Cases can be passed to mainland China, with the Supreme People’s Procuratorate and the Supreme Court designating the judicial authorities handling them. Lead perpetrators and serious offenders can receive 10 years to life in prison for secession, terrorism, subversion of state power and collusion with foreign forces.

The law also said certain national security cases could be held behind closed doors without juries in Hong Kong if they contained state secrets, although the verdict and eventual judgements would be made public.

 

The controversial law has received criticism all over the world. Photo: AFP Relax News

 

Pro-democracy camp in Hong Kong

Criticism poured in from Hong Kong’s pro-democracy figures. The Democratic Party said the legislation marked the end of “One Country, Two Systems” and “completely destroys Hong Kong’s judicial independence”. The Labour Party said it feared dissidents would share the same fate as those on the mainland who are frequently jailed under Beijing’s own national security laws.

The Civic Party said the legislation replaces “rule of law” with “rule of men”. “This rule of terror might create a false appearance of controlled social order, but it completely loses Hong Kong people’s hearts,” the party said.

“It marks the end of Hong Kong that the world knew before,” prominent democracy campaigner Joshua Wong tweeted as his political party Demosisto announced it was disbanding. “With sweeping powers and ill-defined law, the city will turn into a #secretpolicestate.” Some Hong Kongers responded by deleting Twitter accounts and scrubbing other social media platforms.

In contrast, former city leader Leung Chun-ying took to Facebook to offer bounties of up to HK$1 million (US$130,000) for anyone who could help secure the first prosecutions under the new legislation or track down people who have recently fled the city.

 

Prominent democracy campaigner Joshua Wong’s his political party Demosisto announced it was disbanding. Photo: AFP Relax News

 

Fundamental change

As part of the 1997 handover from Britain, Hong Kong was guaranteed certain freedoms — as well as judicial and legislative autonomy — for 50 years in a deal known as “One Country, Two Systems”. The formula helped to cement the city’s status as a world-class business hub, bolstered by a reliable judiciary and political freedoms unseen on the mainland. Critics have long accused Beijing of chipping away at that status, but they describe the new security law as the most brazen move yet.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he was “deeply concerned” and that London would scrutinise the law “to understand whether it is in conflict” with the handover agreement.

“It’s a fundamental change that dramatically undermines both the local and international community’s confidence towards Hong Kong’s ‘One Country, Two Systems’ model and its status as a robust financial centre,” Hong Kong political analyst Dixon Sing told AFP.

 

Restore stability

On the mainland, national security laws are routinely used to jail critics, especially for the vague offence of “subversion”. Beijing and Hong Kong’s government reject those allegations.They have said the law will only target a minority of people, will not harm political freedoms in the city and will restore business confidence after a year of historic pro-democracy protests.

“I urge the international community to respect our country’s right to safeguard national security and Hong Kong people’s aspirations for stability and harmony,” city leader Carrie Lam told the UN Human Rights Council in a video message on Tuesday.

Millions took to the streets last year while a hard core of protesters frequently battled police in often violent confrontations that saw more than 9,000 arrested. Hong Kong has banned protests in recent months, citing previous unrest and the coronavirus pandemic, although local transmissions have ended.

Some Western nations warned of potential repercussions ahead of the security law’s passing. However many are also wary of incurring Beijing’s wrath and losing lucrative access to the mainland’s huge economy. “We deplore this decision,” said European Council head Charles Michel.

Washington, which has embarked on a trade war with China, has said the security law means Hong Kong no longer enjoys sufficient autonomy from the mainland to justify special status.

The United States on Monday ended sensitive defence exports to Hong Kong over the law, prompting China to threaten unspecified “countermeasures”.

Last year, millions of protestors took to the streets last year in Hong Kong. Photo: AFP Relax News

 

The World Reacts

China

China’s sweeping national security law for Hong Kong has sharply divided opinion both inside the financial hub and beyond its borders.

Beijing loyalists and China-friendly nations have hailed it.

Many dissidents, rights groups and western governments have decried it as the end of the city’s free speech traditions and judicial autonomy.

Ahead of the territory’s handover from Britain, authoritarian China guaranteed Hong Kong civil liberties — as well as judicial and legislative autonomy — until 2047 in a deal known as “One Country, Two Systems”.

 

Hong Kong government and Beijing 

Carrie Lam has stated that it is “the most significant development” since the city’s handover to China. Photo: AFP Relax News

Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing leader Carrie Lam on 1 July described the security law as “the most significant development” since the city’s handover to China.

Beijing described the law as a “sword” that would hang over the heads of lawbreakers after a year of huge and often violent pro-democracy protests.

Zhang Xiaoming, deputy of Beijing’s Hong Kong office, described threats of sanctions by foreign countries as “gangster logic”. He added Beijing could have simply applied mainland law had it wanted to abandon “One Country, Two Systems”.

 

United States

“Today marks a sad day for Hong Kong, and for freedom-loving people across China,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said after the law was passed. “(China) promised 50 years of freedom to the Hong Kong people, and gave them only 23,” he said, adding further US countermeasures would be announced.

Washington had previously announced Hong Kong no longer has sufficient autonomy from the mainland to justify special trade privileges.

“Per President (Donald) Trump’s instruction, we will eliminate policy exemptions that give Hong Kong different and special treatment, with few exceptions,” Pompeo added.

In Congress, a group of bipartisan legislators tabled a bill that could provide refugee protection for Hong Kongers.

 

Britain

Hong Kong’s former colonial master Britain described the law as a “grave step” and “deeply troubling”. But it said it needed more time to determine whether Beijing has breached its “One Country, Two Systems” promise.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has previously offered to extend visa rights to millions of Hong Kongers if the law was pushed through.

Chris Patten, the last colonial governor of Hong Kong, called the law “the end” of “One Country, Two Systems”. “It is a flagrant breach of the Sino-British Joint Declaration — a treaty lodged at the United Nations — and Hong Kong’s mini constitution, the Basic Law,” he added.

 

Even as word filtered out that the national security law had been approved, Hong Kongers remained in the dark about its contents and what might now constitute a crime. Photo: AFP

 

What the United Nations say

Twenty-seven countries — including Britain, France, Germany, Australia and Japan — issued a rare oral rebuke of China at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, describing “deep and growing concerns” over the new law. They urged China to reconsider, saying the law “undermines” the city’s freedoms. The signatories added that the law was imposed without the direct participation of Hong Kong’s people, its legislature or judiciary.

Another 53 countries, led by China ally and fellow one-party state Cuba, announced support for the law at the Geneva meeting. “The legislative power on national security issues rests with (the) state, which in essence is not a human rights issue,” the statement said, according to Chinese state media.

 

Source: AFP Relax News