Commentary

A special ‘birthday gift’ for Hong Kong

China has forced a new national security law onto the Special Administrative Region of Hong Kong. While the new law was anticipated, few thought it would be as draconian as it is, with unprecedented scope and reach. The legislation threatens fundamental freedoms that characterized life in Hong Kong and distinguished it from that on the mainland. The question today is whether imposition of this law signals the emergence of a new China, or whether Hong Kong is truly “special” and this legislation is merely an extension of Beijing’s authoritarianism to the former British-run enclave.

When Hong Kong reverted to China in 1997, Beijing adopted the “One country, two systems” formula to protect the “essence” of Hong Kong — a capitalist, democratic and independent legal system — as it incorporated the city into the mainland. “One country, two systems” was more than a device to convince Taiwanese that they too could reunite with China and maintain their essential freedoms; in the 1984 joint declaration with the United Kingdom, Beijing pledged that it would respect the city’s quasi-independence for 50 years.

The Basic Law (the Hong Kong constitution) mandated that the city government would pass national security legislation to safeguard it against foreign interference. Each time it tried, the effort was derailed by mass protests. Frustrated by the inaction, the Chinese government took matters into its own hands this year, wrote its own law and forced it onto Hong Kong. The text of the law was released hours before it went into effect just before July 1, the 23rd anniversary of Hong Kong’s reversion to China.

The 66 articles of the legislation are sweeping. It criminalizes “secession, subversion, organization and perpetration of terrorist activities, and collusion with a foreign country or with external elements to endanger national security.” Those “crimes” aren’t well defined, but violations can result in life imprisonment for the most serious offenses.

Worryingly, the law not only applies to citizens of Hong Kong but can be used against anyone anywhere who speaks out in defense of the city or criticizes China’s actions there. It resembles the assertion of extraterritorial jurisdiction that the Beijing government has roundly criticized when practiced by the United States.

The law establishes a national security committee to oversee investigation and prosecution of violations. This body has no external oversight; it is not subject to Hong Kong law and is exempt from judicial review. Finally, judges on the Chinese mainland have the power to hear the most serious national security cases, making the law for all practical purposes an extradition bill — legislation that triggered mass protests last year and was eventually withdrawn.

The Committee for Safeguarding National Security of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, chaired by Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam, met for the first time Monday, and began to flesh out the new rules. Now, Hong Kong police can conduct searches without a warrant in “exceptional circumstances,” restrict suspects from leaving the city, and intercept communications.

Property can be frozen if there are “reasonable grounds” to suspect that the property is related to an offense endangering national security. Publishers and media platforms, including internet service providers, can be ordered to take down messages “likely to constitute an offense endangering national security or is likely to cause the occurrence of an offense endangering national security” or face substantial fines and jail time; the same applies to individuals who post those messages. Lam denied Tuesday that police power has been expanded.

In short, residents of Hong Kong are now subject to the same restrictions on expression that governs life in mainland China. In response, ordinary people are scrubbing social media accounts, bookstores and libraries are removing potentially “subversive” literature from their shelves, and social media companies have suspended cooperation with Hong Kong law enforcement authorities while they review the law. Foreign journalists have been warned that they can be expelled if the “cross the line” while reporting on demands for independence.

While many prodemocracy advocates confess to being cowed by the new law — some prodemocracy groups disbanded — many others have not. Several thousand protestors took to the streets to denounce the legislation, and over 300 were arrested, nearly a dozen of whom were charged with violating the new law, including one person who sported a T-shirt with the slogan “Liberate Hong Kong,” a widely used phrase that is now illegal.

International reaction has been mixed, with many Western governments condemning the action. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson accused China of a “serious breach” of the joint declaration and said that the U.K. would offer residency and a path to citizenship to eligible residents of Hong Kong; as many as 3 million people might qualify — if China lets them go.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement that “The United States will not stand idly by while China swallows Hong Kong into its authoritarian maw.” Washington has said that it will strip Hong Kong of its special trade status, will end exports of defense and technology products to the city, and will impose visa restrictions on Chinese Communist Party officials involved in “undermining Hong Kong’s autonomy.”

Japan’s response has hardened. The government first expressed “concern” but Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi later expressed Japan’s “regret,” adding that the law “undermines the trust” that is the foundation of ties with Hong Kong. The move is likely to harden opposition to a state visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping, originally set for April, postponed because of the COVID-19 outbreak and yet to be rescheduled. The government is also reportedly exploring ways to entice individuals and businesses in Hong Kong’s financial sector to move to Japan to build up this country’s status as a regional financial center.

Beijing is not going to be deterred. Chinese officials insist that “One country, two systems” has not been abandoned and Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian argues it will be “further strengthened” by the new legislation. It no doubt is emboldened by the 53 countries that voted last week in support of the new law in a resolution at the United Nations Human Rights Council; only 27 criticized the legislation. Many observers believe that support reflects China’s readiness to provide economic assistance, as well as a natural affinity for such actions by other authoritarian governments.

It is a mistake to believe that external action will alter Chinese behavior in Hong Kong. China is becoming more powerful and the rest of the world is distracted by grappling with COVID-19. As Zhang Xiaoming, executive director of China’s Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office, explained, “The era when the Chinese cared what others thought and looked up to others is in the past, never to return.”

But is Hong Kong special? It is part of Chinese territory, historically deemed a “core interest” that can brook no challenge. Taiwan is also considered a core interest and Beijing’s indifference to international considerations raises fears that the island may soon be the focus of mainland attention; some hardliners call the new law a critical step toward the liberation — read: absorption — of Taiwan.

Those ambitions rest on two assumptions. First, that the people of Hong Kong and Taiwan seek to and ultimately benefit from being reunited with the mainland. Zhang articulated this view when he called the new law a “birthday gift” for Hong Kong. Second, it assumes that the world will not intervene as it does so. That is an especially dangerous belief, since the U.S. has repeatedly emphasized that it remains committed to a peaceful resolution of the China-Taiwan dispute. Unilateral Chinese action, even if intended as a “gift,” will destabilize the region and could lead to conflict.

Brad Glosserman is deputy director of and visiting professor at the Center for Rule Making Strategies at Tama University as well as senior adviser (nonresident) at Pacific Forum. He is the author of “Peak Japan: The End of Great Ambitions.”

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