Hong Kong and National Security Laws

China’s decisive step

Print edition : June 19, 2020

Chinese President Xi Jinping reaches to vote on a piece of national security legislation concerning Hong Kong during the closing session of China's National People’s Congress in Beijing in May. Photo: Mark Schiefelbein/AP

A demonstration in Hong Kong in September 2019. Photo: AP

President Donald Trump speaks at a press conference on China on May 29 amid soaring tensions between the two powers, including over the status of Hong Kong and the novel coronavirus pandemic. With him is Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Photo: MANDEL NGAN/AFP

The West flexes its muscles as China’s National People’s Congress decides to extend the country’s national security laws to Hong Kong.

The decision by China’s National People’s Congress (NPC), during its annual session in the last week of May, to extend the country’s national security laws to Hong Kong has not come as a surprise to the international community. The situation in Hong Kong had been festering without resolution since the middle of last year with lawlessness taking hold in the territory. There was open talk of secession by a hard core within the raucous opposition on the island. Attempts were made to replicate the colour revolutions that the West had encouraged in some countries.

The so-called “umbrella revolution” of 2014 in Hong Kong was the first attempt. The “black shirt revolution” that started last year has been a more sustained attempt. Protesters clad in black openly carried American and British flags and called for outside intervention in Hong Kong. The State Department of the United States, under Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, added fuel to the fire by encouraging sections of the demonstrators. The National Endowment for Democracy (NED), which works closely with the State Department, plays a prominent role in encouraging and financing anti-China protests.

The Chinese government said that the NPC decision was taken to “safeguard national security”, improve the “one country, two systems” principle and safeguard Hong Kong’s long-time stability and prosperity. The proposed national security law covers only four offences—secession, subversion, terrorist activities and foreign intervention. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has stated that the law was aimed at “a very narrow category of acts that seriously jeopardise national security”. The Hong Kong assembly has been trying to pass this law since 2003. Neighbouring Macau did not waste any time in passing the law soon after it acceded to China.

Li Zhanshu, chairman of the NPC Standing Committee, said that the decision “serves the fundamental interests of all Chinese people, including Hong Kong compatriots”. Hong Kong’s Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, welcomed the decision and said that her government would fully cooperate with the NPC. She pointed out to her compatriots that “rights and freedoms are not absolute” anywhere in the world. “Look at how the local government handle chaos in the U.S. and what stance they took on a similar level of chaos in Hong Kong last year,” Lam observed at a recent press briefing. In less than a week, almost two million Hong Kongers signed a petition supporting the move. A senior Hong Kong official, Secretary of Justice Teresa Cheng, stressed that national security in all regions fell entirely within the purview of the central government.

The NPC has made it clear that the proposed legislation will only target “a tiny number” of Hong Kong residents suspected of endangering China’s national security. According to the Chinese authorities, the introduction of the security law will not negatively impact on the freedoms currently being enjoyed by the people of Hong Kong and the “one country, two systems” principle will remain intact. As a special administrative region of China, Hong Kong enjoys a high degree of autonomy and retains its capitalist system and lifestyle. The free flow of capital and the free convertibility of the Hong Kong dollar will continue to be safeguarded by the Basic Law of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR). The purpose of the “one country, two systems” principle, as clarified in the preamble to the Basic Law, is “upholding national unity and territorial integrity, maintaining the prosperity and stability of Hong Kong”.

Speaking to the media, Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang said that the “one country, two systems” principle remains China’s basic state policy. Under the system, Hong Kong has retained British commercial laws that prevailed under colonial rule. In comments made after the end of the NPC meeting, Li assured the people of Hong Kong that Beijing would protect the territory’s “long term prosperity and stability”. Hong Kong’s former Chief Executive, Tung Chee-hwa, said that the people of Hong Kong had no need to fear as long “as they don’t plan to engage in acts of secession, subversion, terrorism or conspiring with foreign elements”. Hong Kong already has a law that prohibits the propagation of views advocating independence for the territory.

Many Chinese commentators also point out that Hong Kong has more autonomy than individual States in the U.S. and also that Hong Kong will continue to have the power of final adjudication. In the U.S., this power is vested only in the country’s Supreme Court. Hong Kong also has the power to issue its own currency. In the U.S., this power resides in the Federal Reserve. Hong Kong has a separate customs status, which no State in the U.S. has.

The Trump administration, which seems intent on triggering a second cold war, with China as the enemy this time, was quick to criticise the move to introduce the national security law. President Trump had warned that the U.S. would act “very powerfully” if the NPC passed the security law. Pompeo promptly declared that Hong Kong no longer had “a high degree of autonomy”, signalling that Washington was preparing to impose multiple economic and trade sanctions on Hong Kong to put into jeopardy its status as a global financial hub.

Last November, following the anti-China street protests, the U.S. Congress passed legislation requiring the State Department to certify Hong Kong’s autonomy from the Chinese government. Pompeo’s recent statement indicates that the Trump administration is preparing the ground to revoke the recognition the U.S. had accorded to Hong Kong after the British handed over the territory to China in 1997. Many American companies have their regional headquarters in Hong Kong. The U.S. has a huge trade surplus with Hong Kong, estimated to be close to $35 billion dollars. Eight per cent of China’s exports to the U.S. are through Hong Kong.

The former student leader Joshua Wong, one of the most visible faces of the anti-China protests in Hong Kong, has openly supported the punitive steps being contemplated by the Trump administration. “Our hope is that a drastic change of American policy will encourage China to reverse course on Hong Kong,” he declared. He was not disappointed. President Trump announced at the end of May that the U.S. would take measures that would “affect the full range of agreements that we have with Hong Kong” and would include “action that would revoke Hong Kong’s preferential treatment as a separate travel and custom’s territory from the rest of China”.

The Trump administration has so far only succeeded in getting its close allies such as Britain, Canada and Australia to issue a joint statement critical of China’s move. It said that the planned security law “dramatically erodes Hong Kong’s autonomy and the system that made it so prosperous”. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson provocatively said that his government would allow Hong Kong’s three million residents to live and work in Britain if the security law was passed. In response, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson said that the British government “should step back from the brink, abandon its colonial mentality and recognise that Hong Kong has returned” to China.

The European Union has also criticised Beijing’s move, further reinforcing China’s suspicions that the West is intent on using the Hong Kong issue to undermine its national security. Hu Xijin, editor of Global Times, which reflects the view of the Chinese government, dared the Trump administration to carry out its threats. He noted that there were 85,000 Americans working in Hong Kong and that the American companies operating there would “reap the bitter fruits”.

Hong Kong’s role as an international economic entrepot is anyway not all that crucial for China these days. When the British left in 1997, Hong Kong accounted for 18 per cent of China’s total gross domestic product (GDP). Today, according to World Bank figures, it accounts for less than 4 per cent.

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