For months, coronavirus has left Hong Kong’s streets relatively quiet. Now Beijing has shattered the calm. Its move to impose security legislation on the city is a serious challenge to Hong Kong’s political and legal autonomy. It undermines the principle of “one country, two systems” that has underpinned relations with China’s central authorities since the British handover in 1997. It threatens to reignite last year’s pro-democracy protests — and will deepen the already dangerous stand-off between the US and China.
For many Hong Kongers, the security law is a red line. Article 23 of the city’s 1997 “basic law” requires it eventually to enact legislation “to prohibit any act of treason, secession, sedition or subversion” against China’s central government and curb foreign influence. Moves towards adopting a law by the city authorities in 2003 brought 500,000 people on to the streets in the largest protests since the 1960s.
The city authorities U-turned and never tried again; Beijing, too, seemed to accept it was politically unfeasible. What China’s central government is doing now, however, is even more provocative — using the rubber-stamp national assembly to impose the legislation, bypassing Hong Kong’s legislative council.
The apparent aim is to snuff out further pro-democracy demonstrations like those that rocked the city last year, before the virus entirely recedes. Beijing hopes the law will either scare future protesters off, or can be wielded to crush them. It may presume foreign countries are too preoccupied with the pandemic to offer much response.
Beijing also seems to believe the danger of allowing a Chinese territory to persist with open revolt against the centre outweighs the risk of harming Hong Kong’s status as a financial and business centre. Imposing a security law similar to that elsewhere in China aims to ensure Hong Kong can never again be used as a base for dissent that could spill over into the mainland.
Assuming Hong Kong’s version is applied similarly, even a satirical poem about President Xi Jinping could be defined as seditious. Rights of freedom of assembly, expression and demonstration enshrined in the city’s basic law are under threat. Plans for China’s national security agencies to set up direct operations in Hong Kong under the law will further erode its autonomy.
The Chinese move also sends a clear message to Taiwan, where Mr Xi sees asserting Chinese sovereignty as his historical mission, that Beijing’s pledges of autonomy are meaningless.
Western capitals should be united in their condemnation. While that is unlikely to deter Beijing from imposing the security law, it might yet persuade it to act with restraint in enforcing it. The UK, which negotiated the 1997 agreement, has a particular responsibility to speak out.
Washington has special leverage, in a law allowing it to revoke economic and trade privileges that Hong Kong — but not the rest of China — enjoys with the US if it decides “one country, two systems” is unravelling. It should make clear it is ready to do so if the Hong Kong security law is applied heavy-handedly.
Foreign business, too, should make its voice heard. Many companies choose Hong Kong as their China base since it combines access to the mainland with the protections of an independent judicial system. Eroding that independence will make it much more difficult for Hong Kong to play its vital role as an offshore financing centre for Chinese companies. As the Trump administration tightens financial restrictions, that is one message that should focus minds in Beijing.