Legislation from China poses a new threat to Hong Kong protestors

Hong Kong - Studio Incendo - Licensed under CC BY 2.0

On May 21, the National People’s Congress and its Standing Committee, the organs responsible for enacting the law in China, proposed the National Security Law. A week later, the Chinese parliament gave its approval, a decision that provoked a new wave of protests. The bill, which has yet to take effect, would target dissent, separatism, subversion of state power, terrorism and foreign interference in Hong Kong, allowing for the presence of mainland law enforcement which previously operated in secret.

Once again, the people of Hong Kong see their autonomy under the threat of the Chinese Communist Party, which justifies its increasing pressures on the region as concern for national safety. Ever since Hong Kong became the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China, Beijing has shown little commitment to the region’s autonomy under the “one country, two systems” agreement, stipulated in 1997 and set to end in 2047.

On June 2, Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam assured that the bill aims to safeguard national security, to support and improve the “one country, two systems” status, to impose stricter compliance with the law, to prevent external interference in the region’s affairs and “to uphold the legal rights and freedoms of Hong Kong people. […] The enactment will not change the high degree of autonomy and will have no impact on the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region’s judicial independence, including that of final adjudication.”

Similar policies in mainland China have notoriously suppressed human rights in the name of national security, which, in addition to a long series of oppressive action taken on Hong Kong, prompts the question of how reliable the words of the Chief Executive could be.

In 2015, another law to protect national security had suppressed human rights in mainland China. It did not apply to Hong Kong, whose autonomy at the time was stronger under the “one country, two systems” policy. However, Hong Kong and Beijing have always had a difficult relationship where tensions escalated into revolts on more than one occasion. Seventeen years ago, when the government of Hong Kong proposed Article 23 (another national security reform), 500,000 citizens protested to express their opposition to the bill. This effort led to the government backing down.

Last year’s protests (which saw the participation of two million people) were against a proposed extradition bill that would have sent suspects to face trial in China. And despite the large victory of democracy in November’s district council elections, freedom seems to be at risk more than ever. Rayson, a BC international student from Hong Kong, is following the events from overseas. COVID-19 did not stop thousands of people from marching in the streets, but it did significantly reduce the size of the crowd. He explains that the question right now is how to effectively say “no,” when resistance has become so weak.

Like many other Hong Kong citizens, Rayson hopes that democracy will prevail. He believes independence from China is the only solution to protect the freedoms of his compatriots but is unsure if that could ever happen, seeing the recently announced ban of the Tiananmen Square vigil as a dangerous sign for the future. “Sometimes, you need to have some hope,” he says, remembering the unexpected fall of the Berlin Wall and the unification of Germany.

But people are scared, and many are considering leaving the country. “If I were to leave the US, I would directly go to the UK, because I wouldn’t feel safe in Hong Kong.” He worries that footage might reveal he participated in last year’s protests. Some of his friends went to prison. “If I were in Hong Kong right now, I would be one of them.” Rayson is one of the 300,000 people to hold the British National (Overseas) passport, which allows the owner to travel to the UK visa-free for six months. On June 2, the British Foreign Secretary announced that if China implements the National Security Law in Hong Kong, they will extend that period to a year. This would allow for citizenship eligibility, as the UK recognizes that the bill would violate the rights of the people of Hong Kong. Currently, 2.5 million residents are eligible for the BN(O) passport.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson responded that “it is after Hong Kong’s handover to China that Hong Kong residents had unprecedented rights and freedoms,” advising to stop interfering in China and Hong Kong’s affairs.

The United States took action, too. On May 29, Trump made the following announcement: “China’s latest incursion, along with other recent developments that degraded the territory’s freedoms, makes clear that Hong Kong is no longer sufficiently autonomous to warrant the special treatment that we have afforded the territory since the handover. […] I am directing my administration to begin the process of eliminating policy exemptions that give Hong Kong different and special treatment. […] We will take action to revoke Hong Kong’s preferential treatment as a separate customs and travel territory from the rest of China. The United States will also take necessary steps to sanction PRC and Hong Kong officials directly or indirectly involved in eroding Hong Kong’s autonomy.”

“Hong Kong is an important international trading hub,” Rayson says. Without the special status, Hong Kong’s economy would suffer greatly, but so would China’s. In 2019, Hong Kong accounted for 70 percent of direct foreign investments in China. Trump’s controversial decision, if combined with other international action, could pressure the Communist Party to withdraw the National Security Law.

As for now, Hong Kong’s government doesn’t desist, warning that the decision would harm the American economy, and reaffirming the legitimacy of the bill. The Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson announced that “any words or actions by the U.S. that hurt China’s interests will be met with firm counter-attacks,” foreshadowing worse developments in the so-called “trade war.”