The slogans of the long-running democracy movement in Hong Kong (above) are now declared to be crimes punishable by ten years or more in jail
The Chinese National People’s Congress passed the Hong Kong National Security Act on 30 June. It was then gazetted and enacted as Annex 3 of the HKSAR Basic Law at 11 pm the same day. It came into effect on 1 July 1st, the day Hong Kong was handed over by the UK to China exactly 23 years ago. 1 July is a public holiday in Hong Kong, and the day when anti-Government demonstration marches are held.
On 1 July, tens of thousands defied the new law and demonstrated without police permission in many parts of Hong Kong, displaying banners with now “subversive” slogans. 380 people were arrested, including ten specifically charged with offences under the new law. The previously demoralised police have now been given a massive boost to continue with their brutal treatment of demonstrators. On the same day, several pro-independence political groups disbanded to avoid prosecution.
Throughout this legislative process, not even senior government officials in Hong Kong had sight of the draft of the new legislation, let alone Hong Kong legislators or the general public. The law has been imposed without any consultation, other than Beijing informally sounding out its cronies in Hong Kong. At present there is only a Chinese language version published.
By taking this measure, the Chinese Government has circumvented Article 23 of the HKSAR Basic Law, which the HKSAR Government should have enacted to establish its own local law on national security. The first Chief Executive attempted to introduce Article 23 in 2003 and was opposed by a furious demonstration of over 500,000. He promptly resigned on health grounds and every other Chief Executive has since avoided this poisoned chalice.
The new law has created four new offences - secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces to endanger national security. Whilst this law may look similar to national security laws in most countries including the UK and USA, the definitions of the offences are very broad.
Secession is defined as “to participate, plan or implement… acts of secession… whether or not force or the threat of force is used.” The law will prohibit the advocacy of independence or self-determination for Hong Kong, Taiwan, Tibet, Xinjiang or any part of China.
Likewise, subversion would include attacking or damaging government venues, facilities and emblems. Terrorism would include interference or damage to societal infrastructure – utilities, public transport and public health systems.
Collusion with foreign forces not only includes “to steal, spy, bribe or unlawfully provide state secrets or intelligence related to national security” but also “to request foreign institutions, organisations or agents to implement, conspire or support war, sanctions, blockades, enacting laws and policies against China, and “to cause hatred among Hongkongers towards the Hong Kong or Chinese government.” It is no secret that many Hong Kong consulates have inflated staff numbers and the city has long been a centre for espionage activity; this legislation could now enable the Government to move more decisively against CIA and other spy networks in Hong Kong.
Hong Kong’s Secretary for Justice admitted that the new law is not compatible with Hong Kong’s Common Law tradition. Draconian sentences include 10 years minimum up to life imprisonment. Not only is the HK police given widespread powers to search, freeze assets and detain suspects, with the re-establishment of what is effectively a Special Branch disbanded after 1997, but the new law establishes a National Security Office directly controlled by Beijing that overrides Hong Kong’s legal system, including right to silence, granting of bail, open trial by jury, appeals, judicial reviews and other safeguards. The police no longer need to apply to a court for a warrant to demand that software providers of Gmail, Whatsapp, Facebook and Telegram divulge user data. This is sending a shockwave through the whole city, despite earlier promises that the new law would be used only to target a very small minority of troublemakers.
Schools are now required to provide national security education, to remove books that may be deemed to be illegal from libraries and to train all students to sing the national anthem. Further control of the curriculum is widely expected to follow. The Government has been quick off the mark, seeking to interpret the new law, implying that the slogan “Liberate Hong Kong, Revolution Now” as well as the song “Glory to Hong Kong” are now illegal.
Beijing has factored in the adverse reaction from Western governments in taking this decision, a defensive measure to protect its geopolitical interests. Hong Kong continues to be a key part of the chessboard in Beijing’s combative game with the US and its allies, with a lot of financial considerations at stake on both sides.
Anti-government election candidates for the forthcoming Legislative Council elections in September now expect to be disqualified from standing if they declare their opposition to the new National Security law. What had promised to be another landslide electoral defeat for the pro-Government political parties now looks like the complete opposite. Whilst some prominent pro-independence figures have chosen to leave, to Taiwan or the West, others have chosen to stay for the fight, knowing that the stakes are higher than just what will happen to the city.