Why China’s national security law for Hong Kong is spurring more protests

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Following the months-long feverish unrest in Hong Kong in 2019 over the now-shelved extradition bill, Hong Kongers have resumed protests against another major proposed legislation concerning the semi-autonomous territory’s national security situation. 

China’s National People’s Congress Standing Committee, a rubber-stamp legislature, endorsed and authorized the resolution of the bill on May 28, of which the details to the Hong Kong government are still unknown. What is clear, however, are the four offences incorporated in the proposed bill as outlawed actions: secession from China, subversion, terrorism and foreign interference. 

Pro-independence movements and “violent radicals” are used as inarguable grounds to enact a law that would safeguard national sovereignty as well as uphold the ‘one country, two systems’ principle, according to the state-owned Xinhua News report. But lawmakers and activists in Hong Kong cite concerns about the disregard to Hong Kong’s Basic Law, the de-facto mini-constitution that came into effect after the 1997 British Handover. 

“This disputable legislation is promulgated without any legislative scrutiny, just by the direct promulgation by #Beijing authority. This new mechanism allows #Beijing to impose more China’s draconian laws without any legislature scrutiny,” tweeted Joshua Wong, a notable pro-democracy activist who was convicted of unlawful assembly and sentenced to six months in prison last year. 

A large group of protestors took to the streets on May 24 when the proposed legislation was declared. Riot police in full gear soon arrived at the scene and shot tear gas at the rally, calling the protest “illegal”. 

Hong Kong SAR Government’s pro-Beijing stance

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s camp echoes Beijing’s decision to “rightfully” intervene in the city’s security framework.. Ronny Tong, a senior aide to Lam says the growing uproar is unnecessary and stems from a narrow understanding of the proposed bill. 

“Once passed, the national security law will be like any other law in Hong Kong and it would be subjected to all the common law safeguards that we have in our system,” Tong told Pandora Times, expressing disbelief at any different treatment coming to Hong Kong’s criminal justice system. 

Although it’s still too early to comment on the contents of how the security procedures will change in Hong Kong, Lam defended the penal laws to be “sound and robust”. Not to mention implementing them unchallenged

To this point, Tong argues that existing safeguards will not be removed even though the Chinese agencies could potentially override regulations of local criminal justice court proceedings. “If and when the law is passed no matter what the prohibitions are there will be under the checks and balances of the [International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights]”, Tong says, referring to the international law guarantor of human rights protection which was ratified in 1995. 

Another provision in the draft decision allows for special courts to be set up for those penalized under the new law, provoking pushback from the Hong Kong Bar Association for the risks of partiality eroding judicial independence. 

“What I strongly advocate is that there won’t be any judges from the Mainland to deal with these kinds of offences. Under ‘one country, two systems’, all laws will be adjudicated upon by Hong Kong courts,” Tong said, adding that no different treatment would be shown under any Chinese national agency. 

Protests in Hong Kong began last year due to a controversial extradition bill. Photo by Joseph Chan

“End of ‘one country, two systems’”

While specifics of the decision have not been drafted, many critics of the bill say the eruption of dissent was boiling since the anti-extradition bill protests last year. The implications of the bill would allow criminals to be extradited to the mainland, facing one of the most notoriously opaque legal systems in the world. 

Emily Lau, a former lawmaker from the Legislative Council of Hong Kong and long-time pro-democracy advocate, told Pandora Times that the sweeping nature of the law is not a trigger but adds to the attitude of distrust towards the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). 

“If you send Mainland Chinese officials here to implement the law, it’s in breach of the Joint Declaration and the Basic Law. it’s the end of one country, two systems,” Lau said, referring to Article 23 of the Basic Law. 

This flashpoint began in 2003 with Article 23 when half a million people marched against it. In it, a provision read that crimes of treason, secession, sedition and subversion against the Chinese government will be brought before Beijing-governed courts. Outspoken political individuals and activists, who until now found safe haven in Hong Kong fear they would be silenced and targeted if this bill is to be passed. 

A major case of the Chinese authorities using underhanded methods to stifle critique against the CCP is about the mysterious disappearance of five local booksellers in 2015. Lam Wing-kee, one of the booksellers, went public about his abduction and detention in China. A year later, he was released on bail and fled to Taiwan to reopen the bookstore. 

“People could be extradited to China for trial. And of course, the business people should be concerned because they can be easily caught and it’s really worrying,” Lau says. “Without allowing Hong Kong to legislate as stipulated in Article 23, it’s a big mistake and a complete disregard of the Hong Kong people.” 

The Chinese authorities have routinely labeled the protesters as “terrorists”. This extreme description concerns mostly student-protesters, with over 7,000 arrested since the first protests broke out in June 2019. 

Protesters in Hong Kong have been labeled as “terrorists” by Chinese authorities. Photo by Erin Song

Legal issues abound

According to Sharron Fast, a law professor from The University of Hong Kong, this move could cause irreversible damage to the rule of law in Hong Kong.

“There is every reason to suspect that the provisions when announced will be in direct conflict with the standards on fundamental rights and freedoms that the Basic Law and indeed the Hong Kong Bill of Rights Ordinance have entrenched in Hong Kong,” said Fast. 

For example, Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Lu Xiaobo was sentenced to 10 years in prison for “inciting subversion against state power” leading to his death behind bars. Xiaobo was charged for publishing and passing around Charter 08, a manifesto petitioning for democratic rights in China. 

Fast warns such totalitarian rules can be “applied to all types of expression, from legitimate editorial views to satire”, naming journalists, authors and nonprofits as the first to fall victim to an authoritarian system. 

Reiterating Lau’s concerns for private entities, Fast said that a choke-hold on information exchanges and corporate social responsibility work would be likely, given Beijing’s sweeping control over businesses.

If anything, Hong Kong’s political and legal landscape has gone through the wringer with last year’s revolutionary uprising that sparked huge international outcry against China’s encroaching presence. The outright dismissal of the common law system and fundamental principle of human rights suggests China is headed towards slashing Hong Kong’s autonomy. 

According to Fast, “Beijing is effectively telling the people of Hong Kong that it is not interested in their views.” 

 

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