Hong Kong’s pre-eminence threatened by new law

Beijing’s imposition of a tough new national security law in Hong Kong is raising fears that it will sweep away much of the autonomy and freedom that underpin the territory’s role as Asia’s world city.

On the eve of the 23rd anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover from UK to Chinese sovereignty, Beijing’s top legislative body voted unanimously on Tuesday to insert the new law into Hong Kong’s legal code. This was done without releasing a draft of the law for consultation in Hong Kong or running it through the city’s legislature.

Even the leader of a high-level Hong Kong delegation to Beijing said he had not seen the full text of the law that China’s legislature had already passed. “First of all, we haven’t seen the details ,” Henry Tang, a former chief secretary in Hong Kong’s government, told journalists. “But all Hong Kong delegates firmly support the law,” he added.

When the full text was finally published at 11pm Hong Kong time — some 15 hours after it was passed — western commentators slammed it for eroding the “one country, two systems” principle that safeguards the territory’s independent governance and legal systems.

“The passing of the national security law by China’s legislature absolutely undermines the principle of ‘one country, two systems’,” said Roderic Wye, associate fellow at Chatham House, a UK think-tank. He added that under the “Basic Law” that serves as a de facto constitution for Hong Kong, such legislation should have been passed by Hong Kong’s legislature.

“It threatens confidence in the rule of law since due processes have been overridden and the wideness and vagueness of the new provisions will enable authorities to act pretty much as they please,” added Mr Wye, a former China expert at the UK Foreign Office.

Beijing imposed the new law in a bid to restore order to a territory that has been roiled by months of mass protests — which sometimes flared into violence — since mid-2019. A mainland Chinese businessman in Hong Kong, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said he fully supported the new law as a means to end “chaos” on the streets.

But critics are concerned that the new law gives Beijing too much influence. For instance, one clause provides for the establishment of an “Office for Safeguarding National Security” in Hong Kong. Effectively controlled by Beijing, the office is charged with “overseeing” and “guiding” Hong Kong authorities in their efforts to protect national security.

Crimes defined as secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces under the new law carry a maximum penalty of life in prison, with various shorter terms for lesser offences. 

But the law is often vague about what constitutes an offence. In the section concerning “collusion with . . . external elements”, the law says it is an offence to engage in activities that provoke “hatred among Hong Kong residents toward the Central People’s Government”.

In a separate section, the law makes clear that Hong Kong authorities should strengthen supervision over the media and internet, potentially jeopardising freedoms of expression.

Other clauses suggest an extraterritorial reach. The law says its scope includes both people in Hong Kong and those not in the territory, meaning that foreign nationals who speak in favour of independence for the region, or advocate sanctions on China, could be prosecuted upon entering Hong Kong or mainland China.

However, a well-connected former mainland Chinese official, who declined to be identified, said that the law would be enforced with a relatively light touch. “We are going to track down the ringleaders and troublemakers and snuff out their threat before they can really get going,” he said. “But for everyone else, life will be pretty much as normal, aside from the fact that there will be much less chaos on the streets.”

james.kynge@ft.com

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