Photo by Joseph Chan on Unsplash
China's National People’s Congress decided on 28 May to introduce a National Security Law in Hong Kong. It represents the most direct change of governance on Hong Kong, imposed by the People’s Republic of China, without any discussion with Hong Kong’s Legislative Council.
According to Article 23 of Hong Kong’s Basic Law (a local mini-constitution established as part of the 1997 handover agreement signed between the UK and the People’s Republic of China), the HKSAR Government "shall enact laws on its own to prohibit any act of treason, secession, sedition, subversion against the Central People's Government, or theft of state secrets, to prohibit foreign political organizations or bodies from conducting political activities in the Region, and to prohibit political organizations or bodies of the Region from establishing ties with foreign political organizations or bodies."
After the first Chief Executive Tung Che Hwa famously failed to do so (Tung resigned in 2003 citing health reasons shortly after 500,000 people demonstrated against Article 23), no other Chief Executive has tried to introduce Article 23. Whilst Beijing’s plan still has to be legally drafted, and added to the Basic Law as an Annex, the HKSAR Government is still expected to introduce Article 23.
But then, according to article 45 of the Basic Law, the HKSAR Government was also meant to introduce the election of the Chief Executive. “The ultimate aim is the selection of the Chief Executive by universal suffrage upon nomination by a broadly representative nominating committee in accordance with democratic procedures”. Its proposal to introduce this in 2017 was blocked by Beijing in 2013 and directly led to the 2014 protests known as the umbrella movement.
While Beijing argues that every nation has national security and extradition laws, and so its actions are not exceptional, the timing and context of its move sends a clear signal to the whole of Kong Kong society that the rest of the Basic Law and all the rights and freedoms enjoyed by Hong Kong people that constitutes One Country Two Systems can in future be manipulated at will.
The Hong Kong government will doubtless assert that the judiciary remains independent and Common Law still prevails in Hong Kong’s courts, and that Hong Kong still has its own currency, taxation, education and health systems, as well as membership of WTO, even its own Olympics status. Its critics have argued that One Country, Two Systems is effectively dead.
The passing of this law will allow mainland security agencies to operate in Hong Kong. The kidnap of five Causeway Bay booksellers in December 2015, for selling politically sensitive books banned in China was a chilling reminder of the global reach of Beijing’ secret service. Soon they will operate officially in the city. Many fear that the thousands who have been arrested will be charged under new laws and even transferred to prisons in mainland China.
Why has China decided to do this, knowing full well that it would further inflame protests and provoke the USA and other western powers into retaliation? Wouldn’t this move strengthen Taiwanese support for their pro-independence President, negating Beijing’s strategic aim to “unify the country” and take over Taiwan?
The regime in Beijing is on the back foot, playing a move out of desperation, not from strength.
The unstable and volatile situation in Hong Kong continues to be a thorn in the side of a regime that habitually silences its critics, locks up dissidents, journalists and lawyers in the mainland. The prospects of losing many pro-Beijing seats in the forthcoming Legislative Council elections in September, after the whitewash in the recent district council elections, will further weaken the HKSAR Government’s grip. It has to act to stem the tide of unrest in Hong Kong.
It has few cards to play against an aggressive US regime determined to prevent China’s geopolitical and technological ascendancy. It is on the defensive about its initial cover-up over Covid-19. For the first time in recent years, Premier Li Keqiang did not make a GDP growth prediction; economic growth had dropped from double digits a decade ago to 6%, even before the pandemic has created major damage to the economy. Over the years, the Chinese Communist Party has relied on economic development to shore up its legitimacy but the current economic dislocation and decoupling with the US economy will generate higher unemployment and social unrest, adversely impact on China’s One Belt One Road foreign policy initiative as well as dent the Made in China 2025 strategic plan. In asserting its naked control over Hong Kong, it is taking a calculated risk that the sanctions won’t be as sharp and severe as the international reaction over the Tiananmen massacre, when the PRC was diplomatically isolated for years.
Hong Kong, a key hub for global finance, and logistics, linked to the world’s largest manufacturing facilities in China, has now become a pawn in the powerplay chess game between the USA and China. It has been on a gradual decline in terms of economic significance, but still hangs on as the region’s premier business centre, though Shenzhen and Singapore have taken more of the action in recent years. e.g. in 2018 Facebook chose Singapore rather than Hong Kong as its data centre, joining Apple. As the conflict between US and China heats up further, Hong Kong’s economy and working people are set to become big losers.
Trump’s actions may not be well supported by many US corporations, especially the big tech firms. The US remains Hong Kong’s second largest trading partner after China, with half of its exports to Hong Kong based on electrical and telecommunications products. There are over 1300 American companies operating in Hong Kong, of whom 278 use Hong Kong as their regional headquarters. However, if the US takes away Hong Kong’s preferential tax and trading status and treats it as any other Chinese city, this will damage the prospects of these US companies.
The street protests so far have been sporadic and on a much smaller scale than before. On 24 May hundreds of protestors were arrested. On 27 May, the day that secondary schools were due to re-open, a call for a city-wide strike to paralyse the transport system fell flat, and in the evening, the police arrested another few hundred street protesters. On the grounds of social distancing regulations, the police has refused to allow the annual 4 June Tiananmen commemoration event to go ahead in Victoria Park, forcing the organisers to organise small scale events in 50 different locations in the city as well as an online vigil.
So, Beijing wins the first round, catching its critics in Hong Kong off guard, demoralising protesters with hundreds of arrests, and looking to ride out the immediate US responses. For the first time in 30 years, there will not be a mass demonstration in Hong Kong to remind the regime of its brutality in Tiananmen. However, this setback will merely strengthen the resolve of Hong Kong people to fight on, maybe switching to longer-term tactics and strategies, with an initial focus on mobilising for the September elections.
It is also a time for sections of the protest movement to reflect on their previous reliance on and naïve belief that Western governments will send in the cavalry. Hong Kong will have to fight for its future on its own, unless its stance for freedom and democracy can inspire and mobilise working people in the rest of China to also turn against the Communist Party.
First they came for the Causeway Bay booksellers, and I did not speak out - Because I was not a bookseller
Then they came for the pro-independence activists, and I did not speak out - Because I was not pro-independent.
Then they came for the journalists and lawyers, and I did not speak out - Because I was not a journalist or a lawyer
Then they came for the teachers’ union, and I did not speak out - Because I was not a teacher.
Then they came for the Christians, and I did not speak out - Because I was not a Christian.
Then they came for me - and there was no one left to speak for me.