Three faceless bureaucrats from the National People’s Congress filed into a nondescript conference room in Beijing on May 21.
There, in front of an assembled throng of journalists from state-owned media, they delivered what many pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong consider to be the death knell for the city, as if it were any other stultifyingly dull pronouncement on the economy: the unveiling of long-anticipated national security legislation that threatens Hong Kong’s liberty, autonomy, and democracy like never before.
While the press conference only announced that the proposed national security laws were on the official agenda for discussion by the NPC, describing them as “draft legislation on Hong Kong national security laws,” their very mention means the legislation’s passage is a foregone conclusion. While under the Chinese Constitution, the NPC is the “highest organ of state power,” in practice, it’s a rubber-stamp parliament that only convenes once per year—a toothless legislature totally subservient to the Chinese Communist Party’s top brass.
The details of the legislation are yet to be published, meaning their exact scope isn’t yet known. However, it’s clear they will contain provisions similar to those set out in Article 23 of Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, the Basic Law. Article 23 calls for the Hong Kong government to enact legislation to prohibit “any act of treason, secession, sedition, or subversion against the Central People’s Government”—laws that to date haven’t been enacted in Hong Kong, unlike in mainland China.
What also is certain is that the language contained within the legislation—as with the concepts of “sedition” and “treason” in Article 23—will be intentionally ambiguous. That’s to ensure that the interpretation of any new national security legislation in Hong Kong can be changed at any time to charge and jail more pro-democracy supporters, as Beijing pleases.
Just last week, 15 high-profile pro-democracy activists were arrested and charged in a clearly politicized move by the government. Under the proposed legislation, they would highly likely face additional charges under new national security laws.
While Hong Kong’s judicial independence remains relatively unscathed from years of wide-ranging overreach from Beijing in other internal affairs, the power of final interpretation on constitutional questions lies not in any of Hong Kong’s institutions, but in the NPC Standing Committee in Beijing. That constitutes a serious flaw in Hong Kong’s legal system, and an easy avenue for Beijing to interfere in what pro-democracy supporters believe should be matters dealt with exclusively in Hong Kong.
The fact that Beijing has unveiled the plans in the middle of an international pandemic is no accident. Despite having extremely low numbers of coronavirus cases for some weeks, Hong Kong is still subject to a ban on groups of more than eight people. That, coupled with the public’s reluctance to join mass protests due to fears of coronavirus transmission, means Beijing may have just played a master stroke. While the legislation constitutes a massive gamble by Beijing, they couldn’t have picked a better time to do it than now.
The fury sparked by the proposals means an escalation in violent tactics used by front-line protestors is all but certain. Although mass protests won’t immediately resume until the pandemic has subsided, the stage is set for an as-yet unprecedented series of confrontations in the run-up to critical Legislative Council elections in September, a poll many view as being a referendum on the future of the city.
The challenge the pro-democracy camp faces in September is daunting. Even amid widespread public support for the protests, only 40 of Hong Kong’s 70 Legislative Council (LegCo) seats are directly elected by the public, with the remainder selected mainly by business interests. Thus, gaining a majority of seats is made extremely difficult for pro-democracy parties, but not impossible.
A LegCo majority would allow the pro-democracy camp to wreak havoc with the government’s legislative agenda and even dismiss Chief Executive Carrie Lam—if two consecutive budgets are rejected by a majority of members. This would be certain to happen under a Democrat-controlled LegCo. We can only wait for the results.
However, the proposed laws also threaten to throw the elections into chaos. Previous elections have seen mass disqualifications of pro-democracy candidates, and Beijing’s move is a strong indication it will seek to do that again.
This is in spite of recent court rulings, the most recent being from May 21, which have overturned previous disqualifications of candidates hostile to Beijing as unlawful. Whether Beijing will look to disqualify candidates on the basis of new national security laws or existing legislation remains to be seen.
The response to the proposals by the international community is of critical importance. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has described them as “disastrous,” adding that they would be “a death knell for the high degree of autonomy Beijing promised for Hong Kong under the Sino-British Joint Declaration.”
Immediately after the news broke, President Donald Trump stated that the U.S. would respond “very strongly” if Beijing presses on with the legislation’s implementation.
The obvious step for the United States to take if the administration, as seems likely, looks to move beyond words of condemnation would be to rescind the special trade status Hong Kong enjoys under successive Acts of Congress, including the 1992 Hong Kong Policy Act and the 2019 Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act.
Under that legislation, Hong Kong is treated separately from mainland China for the purposes of trade and commerce, on the basis that it enjoys a high degree of autonomy. Now that this autonomy will be dramatically and possibly irrevocably eroded, Pompeo indicated the United States will be reviewing imminently whether to withdraw said status from Hong Kong.
Further acts of Congress that could follow in response to Beijing’s announcement may include a bill to make subject to Magnitsky sanctions Hong Kong and Chinese government officials judged to be responsible for the crackdown. It’s likely that senators including Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), who announced on May 21 that he was filing a resolution to condemn “China’s attempt to violate its treaty commitments and strip Hong Kong of its liberties,” will seek to pilot further legislation through Congress to punish Beijing.
The UK, which administered Hong Kong as a colony until 1997, issued only a muted statement noting the Foreign Office was “monitoring the situation closely,” a deeply disappointing response given the gravity of Beijing’s proposals.
The UK finds itself in a unique position, as hundreds of thousands of Hongkongers born prior to the handover in 1997 possess British National Overseas (BNO) citizenship—a form of British citizenship, but that doesn’t give the holder the right to live or work in the UK.
Leading Conservative politicians have led calls for some time for BNO passport holders to be given full residency rights in the UK, a move that would likely be supported by the opposition Labour Party should the government seek to legislate for it in Parliament. This would likely spark an exodus of BNO passport holders to Britain, further deepening the chaos in Hong Kong.
Nonetheless, any such moves can’t seriously alter the gravity of the situation Hong Kong finds itself in. The response to the noose tightening around Hong Kong’s neck is likely to be ferocious—the city won’t go down with a whimper. An escalation of violence, potentially causing the city to descend into becoming ungovernable, is possible. All bets would be off in such a situation.
As to giving a true sense of the rage that Beijing’s move has sparked, one cannot but be reminded of the famous Trump quote, later the title of Michael Wolff’s book on the administration: fire and fury like the world has never seen.
Jack Hazlewood is a student and activist based in London. He previously worked for a localist political party in Hong Kong and served as a field producer for the conflict journalism outlet Popular Front’s documentary “Add Oil,” which followed frontline protesters in Hong Kong in the run-up to China’s national day in 2019.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.