Emily Lau: Hong Kong Dealt ‘Fatal Blow’ by Communist China’s National Security Law

May 29, 2020 Updated: June 3, 2020

How will the national security law being pushed by Beijing impact Hong Kong rule of law and its role as a major financial center?

Does Great Britain have a special responsibility to help the people of Hong Kong?

And how can the international community effectively put pressure on the Chinese Communist Party to change its course?

In this episode, we sit down with Hong Kong’s “Iron Lady” Emily Lau, the former chairperson of Hong Kong’s Democratic Party. She was the first woman directly elected to Hong Kong’s Legislative Council in 1991, and she also sits on the board of directors of the China Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group.

This is American Thought Leaders 🇺🇸, and I’m Jan Jekielek.

Jan Jekielek: Emily Lau, it’s a real pleasure to have you back on American Thought Leaders, though unfortunate that it’s under these very difficult circumstances.

Emily Lau: Well, thank you very much, Jan. Good to see you again.

Mr. Jekielek: We’re looking at the Chinese Communist Party pushing through this national security law. We’ve been hearing a lot about it in the media, we’ve seen this dramatic increase in protests again, and arrests. Tell us what are the implications of this national security law?

Ms. Lau: Well, this is a real bombshell and this security law was only sprung on us a few days ago. Before that, nobody in Hong Kong knew anything about it. And now, on Thursday, China’s rubber stamp parliament called the National People’s Congress, the NPC, will pass it. Of course it will pass the proposal. And then in June, the Standing Committee of the NPC will work out the details and then they will force it on Hong Kong. So the 7-odd-million people here have not been consulted. And what’s more insulting is that according to the basic law, which is the mini constitution given to Hong Kong by the Communist Party, Hong Kong is supposed to legislate on its own on this national security legislation.

But I guess Beijing has lost patience. So suddenly, it said, “Nevermind. I’m going to do it for you.” So it is ridiculous. So after they have enacted it, it’s a mainland law. And it’s going to be implemented in Hong Kong and probably by public security officials from mainland China. And the Chinese government, the Communist Party, also said they would set up a public security department in Hong Kong, which is totally, totally in breach of the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration and also against the basic law. So they are just turning the whole China’s policy of “One country, two systems” on its head. And that’s why people say, “Well, if this thing is enacted and it’s coming into effect in Hong Kong, it is literally the end of ‘One country, two systems,'” and Hong Kong will become just another Chinese city without freedoms, without the rule of law, independence of the judiciary, personal safety; all these things will go out of the window.

Mr. Jekielek: Emily, that sounds deeply disturbing. As you described it, can you explain to our audiences how the system has worked more traditionally and what is changing now that makes the difference?

Ms. Lau: Well, in the past, of course, up to now, we have not got any law on national security, although the basic law, the mini constitution, said we should legislate. And of course, the government of Mr. C. H. Tung, when he was chief executive, he tried to do it in 2003 but it attracted more than half a million people marching. And so the whole thing was abandoned and no attempt was made again to resurrect it. And what they want to do in this national security law is to create offenses of secession, sedition, subversion, theft of state secrets and so on. But now, what Beijing is trying to do, or will do on Thursday, is to legislate just on subversion, and secession, and terrorist act, and also act of inviting foreign interference. These could be very, very broad offenses. Maybe even now, I’m speaking to you, it could be, maybe not an act of terrorism, but inviting foreign interference or whatever. So it is outrageous.

Well, if we are going to have such draconian offenses, they should be debated in Hong Kong; to be discussed. And actually way back in 2003 when the attempt failed, the legal profession came out. They recognized a need to do it because it’s in the basic law. So why can’t the government publish a white paper, which is a consultative document, and let the whole community have a discussion, and make some compromises, and then come to a consensus? But that never was taken up. So now we just don’t know what would constitute an act of subversion—talking to you maybe—or act of terrorism; act of inviting foreign interference. So this is very disturbing. And also in mainland China, National security offenses, anyone accused of that, and of course they’ll be tried in court, but sometimes they may be locked up for years before they are taken to court. But those court hearings are often held in camera and the defendant, the accused, will have no access to his family members; no access to a defense lawyer. It is complete lawlessness, and that’s what we fear, Jan.

Mr. Jekielek: How is this law related to the extradition bill that brought 2-million-odd people out into the streets last year?

Ms. Lau: That’s a good question. I think this law not only includes the extradition bill, but it has all these other offenses as well. So what we fought so hard to get rid of last year is now coming back with full vengeance. And that’s why actually it’s not just the political activists or the young people who are very worried and afraid. I think the business people and the professionals—they should be even more worried because they go to mainland China all the time. They have lots of dealings with people over there, whereas I can’t even go to mainland China. I’ve been banned by them for over 20 years. But these people who have so many dealings with them, well, if the authorities turn nasty, they can accuse them of these very, very draconian offenses. So that’s why even the American Chamber of Commerce has come up with a statement asking them to spell out what it is. A number of senior Hong Kong and Beijing officials kept speaking out, and I think they want to assure the business and the professional people that they are going to be okay.

But you’re right. Under this law, maybe people who are accused of committing such offenses could be sent to mainland China for trial. And to add insult to injury, today, Reuters reported that they are going to make an amendment to the proposal before it’s passed on Thursday. And the amendment is that if these cases are tried in Hong Kong, in Hong Kong courts, only ethnic Chinese judges can try these cases. We have lots of foreign judges, and the Basic Law says [that] we can invite foreign judges and we have more than a dozen of them sitting in our Court of Final Appeal, but now they want to come out and stipulate that these foreign Court of Final Appeal justices cannot try these cases. How ridiculous. This will make it sound very racist and also, of course, it is a big blow to the independence of the judiciary.

Mr. Jekielek: Emily, exactly. This is one of the big, big questions. People are saying [that] this is the end of rule of law in Hong Kong, and this guarantee that rule of law would be respected in Hong Kong is what has fueled the whole economic boom—Hong Kong became this conduit of U.S. dollars into China. All of this seems to be in jeopardy. Almost seems bizarre that the Chinese Communist Party would do this.

Ms. Lau: Well, you’re right. So some people will say, “Well, this shows you, the Communist Party does not really need Hong Kong so much. Otherwise, why would they want to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs?” But some people of course will continue to argue that the Communist Party needs Hong Kong, as you say, to bring in U.S. dollars and other foreign currency into China. But the fact is, they are dealing this very fatal blow to Hong Kong and it would really damage confidence, and it would affect Hong Kong’s status as an international financial center. Well, I’m not a businessman, Jan, so don’t ask me. You should ask all these business people whether they will continue to have confidence and they will want to do business in Hong Kong. And maybe even if they didn’t, they would not tell you because they don’t want to upset the Communist Party. But they are also forecasting that money and people will leave Hong Kong, and then we will no longer survive. We will no longer be an international financial center.

Mr. Jekielek: We’ve had Kyle Bass on the show, for example, talking about this exact issue. Actually this makes me think: Even towards the end of the year, the Hong Kong economy was in a very difficult state, arguably going into a depression. Then coronavirus hit. Just economically, it’s a very difficult situation over there.

Ms. Lau: Exactly, it is. Many companies have gone bankrupt and I guess even more will do so, and more and more people are getting unemployed. So it is very, very serious because although we don’t have this complete lockdown, many countries do, and especially with mainland China. And now very few of their people can come here and also foreign tourists cannot come. As I said, if you come, you have to be quarantined for two weeks. So many, many industries, businesses have been affected; the hotels are empty. The restaurants, the shops—they’re empty. Many people have been laid off. On top of that, we have this, and these officials keep arguing, “Oh, this is going to be great after we pass this law and we will have stability, and people will love to come and do business.” Well, we will see.

Mr. Jekielek: That’s fascinating. I haven’t actually heard that perspective, that there are people in support of this law [who] believe that this will actually help foster this economic security.

Ms. Lau: Jan, they have to say that, my dear friend. Do you think they will come out and say, “Yeah, if we pass this law, everybody will flee,” or “The money will leave Hong Kong”? Of course they won’t say that. So they have to say the opposite although maybe they themselves know it’s not true. It is very, very laughable and very tragic.

Mr. Jekielek: Emily, frankly, it’s difficult for me to imagine what exactly is going to happen. One of the things that’s been discussed and you’ve actually discussed before is that there’s a considerable number of people who hold the British National (Overseas) passport—this special relationship with the U.K. Can you talk a little bit about the implications of that status? I think it was 3 million almost, of 7 million Hong Kongers. What are the implications of that relationship and what should the U.K. be doing here?

Ms. Lau: Well, yes. Briefly, the origin was 1997, Britain had to pull out of Hong Kong. So at that time we were British Dependent Territory citizens—BDTCs. But of course, on July 1, 1997, we’re no longer dependent territory, so Britain created another citizenship for the people left behind. It’s called British National (Overseas), BNO, and they only can get it up to the end of 1997. After 1997, nobody can apply for BNO and the BNO cannot be passed on to your second generation, but you can hold the BNO for as long as you live. But it does not give you the right to live in the U.K. Of course it doesn’t give you full British citizenship.

At that time, there were more than 3 million people who applied and got the BNO passport. I don’t have one. I’m not a BNO passport holder, but there are that many. And there was a debate in the House of Lords in March this year, and the foreign minister said that their estimate now is that there are 2.9 million people who are eligible for this BNO passport. But those holding a valid BNO passport is about 360,000 because many have not renewed after it expired, but they can get it renewed. So these are British citizens but with no right to live in the U.K.

So what I’m saying to the British government, to Prime Minister Boris Johnson and members of parliament, is that these are British citizens. When you handed Hong Kong over to communist China, and I asked Margaret Thatcher the question, I said, “Is it morally defensible to deliver these people into the hands of the communist dictatorship?” Now, this is all happening before us, and people are very angry and very frightened. So should Britain, should Parliament, not do something for these people by giving them citizenship? I don’t think 2 million people will go there, so I don’t think the Brits need to be so scared, but some will want to go. And I think they have a duty, they have a responsibility, to look after these people. Very sad, very sad.

I hope that they will not wait until there are refugees from Hong Kong like in the 1980s, in the last century, when these Vietnamese boat people, they left Vietnam and came in boats, and landed on the shores of Hong Kong, called the Vietnamese boat people—the refugees. And there was a conference at the United Nations to look after them, to resettle them, and Hong Kong was the first port of call. And we don’t want to see the Hong Kong boat people, do we? We don’t want to see the Hong Kong people taking their boats going out to sea to seek refuge.

Mr. Jekielek: That is actually one of the predictions. I mentioned Kyle Bass who was on the show, [from] Hayman Capital. His prediction actually is that there will be a mass exodus by summer.

Ms. Lau: Well, actually, I don’t know whether you heard or not, today, the president of Taiwan, Tsai Ing-wen, said, “Taiwan will have a policy of accepting Hong Kong people, people who want to flee to Taiwan,” which I think is very good. And I hope they really mean it because there are Hong Kong people who want to go to Taiwan, which of course is much closer than Great Britain, and probably cheaper. And also, language wise, I think many Hong Kong people can speak Mandarin. So if the Taiwanese government genuinely wants to open its doors to the Hong Kong people, I think that it would be a good thing.

So I hope the other countries who are now listening in to our discussion, if their government would adopt a more lenient immigration policy for Hong Kong people, I think you will be doing us a great favor. And I think people who have accepted Hong Kong immigrants, most of these countries are very happy because they think the Hong Kong immigrants are hardworking, and they are bilingual, and they are very, very creative; very, very entrepreneurial. So I certainly hope the world will look at Hong Kong’s case and welcome them. But of course, many don’t want to leave, many cannot leave, and many will stay and fight.

Mr. Jekielek: Yeah, and that’s what I was going to say. There’s certainly a number of people that I’ve been talking to on the down-low over the past few days who are basically saying, “I’m in it for the long haul.” So it’s like a big mix. It’s very interesting. Of course I mentioned earlier, you were the first woman elected to the LegCo. But I think even more so, I have a quote here: Chris Patten described you once as “a true professional politician, handsome, well-informed and dashingly eloquent, who would have gotten to the top of any Western political system.”

Ms. Lau: That’s very kind of Chris, but I’m in communist China—that’s my problem. And people kept asking me when I’m going to be arrested or when I’m going to flee. I’m not going anywhere and I don’t know when I will be arrested. When I’m arrested, Jan, then I can’t talk to you anymore.

Mr. Jekielek: Well, I certainly hope that doesn’t happen. What I wanted to talk to you about though is I’ve spoken with a number of people recently and there’s a suggestion that had there been more of an opening up pre-2014, … you were elected into a position perhaps even to lead the council or something like that. How would you have approached this? I think this is more than just an academic question.

Ms. Lau: Well, actually, when I was a member of the Council for quite a few years, I was able to work with people from the other side. At one stage, we actually had an eight-party coalition in the Council covering more than 80% of the members. So that means in those days, even those pro-communists, pro-business members, were willing to talk to us and try to reach consensus on difficult issues, except political ones. But we can talk about economic things, social things, and we can reach consensus. But now it seems they’re just dead enemies. And of course, I think the main influence is from Beijing, that Beijing would not allow the pro-Beijing camp to talk to the pro-democracy members, and would not make any compromise at all. So it is very, very different and a very difficult situation now.

Mr. Jekielek: Let’s talk about the pro-Beijing camp, so to speak, a little bit. I was reading reports that a number of them or perhaps all of them actually slept at the LegCo last night before the debate started around the National Anthem [Bill].

Ms. Lau: Yes, indeed, because they were calls on social media calling on people to surround the Legislative Council complex, and maybe one thing is to not allow them to enter the complex. So if they were not there, they could not vote, and maybe the National Anthem Bill could be voted down, and I think that they would get death penalty from Beijing. So that’s why they were so terrified.

Mr. Jekielek: Right now, this bill is in the process of being debated. We just had the first day of it. What is this about and why is this one problematic?

Ms. Lau: Well, the national anthem used to be not controversial particularly if you look back to 2008, the Olympics, when it was in Beijing and the Chinese athletes won so many medals. Many Hong Kong people were very patriotic. But since then, and especially in the last few years, many people have become very hostile towards the Communist Party. And when do they play the national anthem? Particularly during the football matches. And then what did some of the Hong Kong people do? They boo it, and they use all sorts of foul language and all the [foul hand] signs. So of course the government felt very much insulted and Beijing was very angry. That’s why they gave us this law and say [that] you must pass it, and it includes a clause and you get a penalty if you insult the national anthem, if you show disrespect to the national anthem. I don’t remember how many months you have to spend in jail or how many dollars you’ll be fined, but people find it so ridiculous. If I want to show respect for the national anthem, it should come out of my heart and not because you have the law to stipulate that I must do it. And so it is very controversial.

Mr. Jekielek: What do you expect will happen with this law? Are we in a situation now where it’s basically guaranteed that anything that Beijing institutes will be passed?

Ms. Lau: I think so. Well, with this council and now with 4,000 police being deployed to stop people from crashing into the complex to stop the proceedings, and because the pro-Beijing camp, they have a majority—not because they are so popularly supported by the people. They have a majority because there are so many functional constituency seats. That means—these are created by the British—one constituency is the General Chamber of Commerce, another constituency is the banks, a third one is the insurance companies, another one [is] the transport companies, and so on. So these people, they make up a majority. So Beijing says, “You support this,” and they will all put up their hands and support it, and of course it will be passed. It’s a disgrace.

Mr. Jekielek: Let’s talk about the police. I’ve been reading reports here that there were more arrests even today, and we’re talking [about] Wednesday, May 27th here, than there have been in the past over a two-month period. Those police have really ramped up arrests, and actually particularly young people, from the reports that I’m seeing from our own media and others.

Ms. Lau: Yes, indeed, because there were many people gathering today from morning to lunchtime, to afternoon, to evening. Now as we speak, as I said, they’re still out there in Mongkok. So the police said it was really an illegal assembly and the police asked them to disperse, and some of them refused, and so the police herded them up and arrested them, but they were not afraid. So they arrested 300 or more, but others kept cropping up and they turned up in the shopping mall; they turned up in the streets. So these are very, very courageous people, they’re not afraid of being arrested or beaten up by the police, and they are so angry, and they will just come out to challenge—challenge the police and challenge the authorities.

Mr. Jekielek: I’m looking at some photos here of what looks like young children, even pre-teenage, so to speak, and in school uniform being arrested. Are you aware of this?

Ms. Lau: Yes, of course. … Like in many other places, because of the pandemic, all the schools are closed. And because the situation is improving a little bit, so today, some of the high schools reopened. So it’s the first day of school for many students after staying home for several months. But today, when the schools reopen, many students already are calling for a strike, a boycott of classes, to protest against this National Anthem Bill and also the national security law. And then of course, after they left school, they all went onto the street. Maybe they gathered in all these places and got arrested by the police.

Mr. Jekielek: … It’s also incredible that these very young kids are taking it this seriously. It’s inspiring.

Ms. Lau: Well, maybe it is. They’re very young. Some as young as 10 years old, and I think some of them were arrested today, teenagers, they got petrol bombs in their bag. I don’t know—that’s what the police claimed. So you’re right. I think they are very young, but they’re very, very active, and many of the young people, maybe not just teenagers, but young people, they are very active and they are very angry.

Mr. Jekielek: You mentioned that the police are alleging there are petrol bombs. We have no idea if that’s true or not. But also, the police have lost a tremendous amount of credibility recently. Just from the look of it, from the outside, there’s just increased aggression; police acting with impunity; the independent investigation doesn’t really appear if it was that independent; no one seems to be charged for any offenses. What is the situation with police?

Ms. Lau: Well, it is really dreadful and many Hong Kong people really hate the police, and the hatred, the venom, the animosity, is so deep. It’s so, so sad. Even with the Occupy [Movement] in 2014, the relations with the police was not that bad. But last year in June, with the violence in the protests, the police became very, very violent and very brutal, and many people were very badly beaten up. But as you said, not a single police officer has been arrested and charged. But now we have over 8,000 arrested; maybe after today, 9,000. So many [were] arrested, but nothing happened with the police. They just did all these bad things with impunity. And many people believe that the police are now not answerable to the Chief Executive Carrie Lam, but to the public security in Beijing, so they are in control. And they’re just out of control—they can just go and beat people up, and round people up, and there’s nothing we can do about it.

Mr. Jekielek: This whole situation, we’ve got this national security law, we’ve got the [National] Anthem Bill, we’ve got a lot of challenges with police, and no oversight. … It’s obviously incredibly, incredibly troubling mass arrests now. A lot of people respect your perspective, in Hong Kong and around the world. What do you recommend to the Hong Kong government at the moment?

Ms. Lau: Well, of course, I hope the international community would speak out and tell the Hong Kong government, but most importantly, the Chinese Communist Party, to cool it; to stop such barbaric acts. And if people say, “Oh, the Communist Party doesn’t care about international public opinion,” they are wrong. They do care. They care about face.

And also I think the international community should speak out because many of their citizens are living and working here, and they have many companies operating here, making money; maybe not anymore. So I hope they will speak out. I just saw on the news that the European Union, the leaders, are going to have a meeting on Friday and Hong Kong may be on the agenda—and I hope it will be—so they will all come out and speak with one voice to tell Beijing to cool it. And then next month, the Group of Seven [G7], big industrialized countries, will meet in America. And the last governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten, has called on the G7 to put Hong Kong on the agenda, to discuss and come up with a statement. …

I hope the international community will send a signal to Hong Kong and to Beijing, to the Communist Party, that the international community is not asleep. They are not too preoccupied with the pandemic that they will turn a blind eye to all these things that are happening in Hong Kong. So they should speak out and tell China to cool it, and don’t do it. And what should they do? To engage—engage the pro-democracy movement; all these councilors who are elected by the people. Let’s have a civilized dialogue.

And then if not, if they won’t do it, then in some countries, they have the Magnitsky Act. I think they have it in the U.S. and in the U.K., the Australians are in the process of passing it, and they can use the act to punish individuals who are guilty of gross human rights violations, and they can ban those people from entering their countries; they can freeze their assets or their properties. This is very serious. So there are all these tools that the international community can use. And I think they should tell … the Communist Party, “Now, if you continue to behave in such a barbaric way, then the international community will take action.”

Mr. Jekielek: There are a lot of calls right now to be ready to revoke Hong Kong’s “special status.” For example, in the U.S., the U.S. administration has said [that] … anything is on the table, depending on what the CCP does. What are your thoughts?

Ms. Lau: Well, they have their law, Hong Kong Policy Act, and they can, if they think it’s necessary, to revoke this separate custom territory for Hong Kong. And as some business leaders said several months ago, they said, “If that happens, the game is over for Hong Kong.” So it is very, very serious. And I certainly do not think that 7.5 million people should be punished. But of course, I’m not the American administration, but I certainly hope that when they do make a decision, they should target the individuals who are guilty of terrible acts. But to choose an action that would hurt millions of Hong Kong people, I certainly would not advocate it. I would advise against it. And I certainly think those politicians in America who like the Hong Kong people, who support the Hong Kong people, will not want to do such a thing to the 7 million of us.

Mr. Jekielek: Emily Lau, any final words before we finish up?

Ms. Lau: Well, I hope I will be at liberty to talk to you again. I think the situation is very grim. Not that I’m saying I’ll be arrested tomorrow—no—but the situation is very grim, and I just hope the international community will spare some time to look at Hong Kong and also will speak out to support us.

Mr. Jekielek: Emily, I certainly hope we get to talk often in the future and we’ll definitely be having you back very, very soon. So great to have you on the show.

Ms. Lau: Thank you very much, Jan.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity. 

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