No Way Back from the Brink: China and Hong Kong Under the New National Security LawPolitics
On June 30, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress of China unilaterally enacted the New National Security Law for Hong Kong, mere hours before the twenty-third anniversary of the British handover. Since then, the international community has watched in shock as authorities have cracked down on critics of the Communist Party of China, including influential figures like media mogul and founder of the newspaper Apple Daily Jimmy Lai and prodemocracy activist Agnes Chow, who were among 10 high-profile dissidents rounded up by police on August 10.
China passing the law places the “one country, two systems” principle at the heart of the 1997 handover agreement in serious doubt. Democratic nations are unlikely to sit idly by as Chinese authorities undo Hong Kong’s cherished independence, and unless the regime of President Xi Jinping reinstates the policy, these countries can be expected to dramatically shift their strategies toward China.
Xi’s Security Roadmap
It must be understood that China did not spring the security law on Hong Kong in response to ongoing pro-democracy protests. Rather, the legislation is an outgrowth of Xi’s long-term aim of bolstering China’s national security. Since his appointment as CPC general secretary at the Eighteenth National Congress in November 2012, Xi has placed safeguarding China against internal and external threats at the core of his agenda.
In 2013 at the Third Plenum of the Eighteenth Party Congress, Xi, in response to the “precipitous and complex” security environment that China faces, established the National Security Commission to serve as a command center for security policies and strategies. He has chaired the group since its launch in April 2014. Discussion of security also took center stage at the Fourth Plenum held later that year, with the Central Committee issuing a communique dictating a raft of reforms to improve the “rule of law.” This was followed by the CPC Politburo in January 2015 adopting the outline of a new national security strategy, leading in July that year to China’s legislature passing a controversial national security law, which excluded Hong Kong, as part of a larger package of security legislation.
Armed with the law, Xi’s government has trampled on the rights and civil liberties of citizens. In July 2015, authorities apprehended more than 200 human rights lawyers and activists, doling out severe punishments in what has amounted to a purge. Since 2016, the regime, under the guise of antiterrorism measures, has incarcerated vast numbers of ethnic Uighurs in Xinjiang in western China at so-called vocational training centers, where internees undergo intense indoctrination, including being forced to renounce their religious beliefs and recite state propaganda. In its eagerness to control the ethnically distinct and mostly Muslim Uighur population, the government has also forced schools to use Chinese and drastically reduce education in the local language.
The government has also cracked down on a wide range of organizations throughout the country, such as different Christian groups and grassroots NGOs, using tactics like obstruction, disruption, incarceration, and other criminal punishment to disrupt their activities. This campaign of intimidation and suppression shows no signs of slowing down, with any entity or person seen as posing a threat to the state’s hegemony being targeted.
These draconian measures are part of what Xi has characterized as an “overall national security outlook,” an amorphous view that has become more clearly defined with the passing of the national security law. According to Article 3 of the law, national security efforts are grounded in the idea of ensuring “political security” and include safeguarding the economy, military, culture, and society. Article 4 then goes on to grant the CPC total authority for overseeing the development and enforcement of national security policies.
On the surface, China’s security stance appears comparable to other countries in its aim to protect the state from threats originating outside or within its borders. However, the idea of political security expressed in the law has nothing to do with preserving the sovereignty of the nation as a whole. Rather, its objective is to sustain the Xi regime by solidifying the power of the CPC and assuring that the socialist system remains firmly in place.
To this end, Xi broke with the traditional parallel arrangement of administrative bodies in forming the NSC. For instance, the Central Military Commission, which commands the armed forces, and the National Supervisory Commission, which carries out inspections of public officials, have both state and party structures. However, the NSC exists solely within the structure of the CPC, its broad role, as defined in Article 5 of the national security law, including overseeing policy decisions related to national security, providing guidance on strategy and policy implementation, and promoting security-related legislation. Another peculiar aspect is the group’s membership, which other than Xi as chair and Li Keqiang and Zhang Dejiang as vice-chairs is a tightly kept secret.
It was against this backdrop that in 2019 the central Chinese authorities, in a top-down action, passed the Hong Kong Extradition Bill, sparking a massive wave of protests in the city. Although Beijing later withdrew the law at the behest of Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam, protestors continued to take to the streets, clashing with police and voicing demands such as real elections to decide top leadership positions. Sensing an impending security crisis, the central government during the Fourth Plenum of the Nineteenth Party Congress in late October of that year decided on legislative measures to quell the unrest. By passing Hong Kong’s national security law, Xi’s succeeded in imposing his security agenda on the city.
The End of “One Country, Two Systems”
Since its handover in 1997, Hong Kong has been allowed to define its own rules on national security issues. Article 23 of the 1990 Hong Kong Basic Law stipulates that as a Special Administrative Region, the city has the authority to enact legislation to prohibit acts like treason, secession, sedition, and attempts to subvert the central government. However, the new law effectively wrestles this mandate away from Hong Kong.
The legislation establishes acts of secession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with foreign forces as crimes against national security, with perpetrators subject to arrest under Chinese law and punishment at the hands of China’s judiciary. In effect, the Hong Kong government, its legal code, and its courts have been made subservient to whims of the central government. The Xi regime now wields broad legal authority to arrest and persecute residents for any act it deems subversive and posing a threat to the security of the nation, even those like speaking out against the government that were once protected under Hong Kong law.
The murky boundaries of the law make it a powerful tool for China to enforce its brand of law and order. Without clear boundaries for determining what constitutes criminal behavior, arrests of Hong Kong residents on trumped up or ambiguous charges have become commonplace.
Jimmy Lai of Apple Daily was taken into custody in an extraordinary scene, with more than 200 police officers storming the headquarters of parent company Next Digital, grabbing files and computers in a stunning search-and-seizure operation.
Beijing has also shown a growing willingness to apply the law retroactively. For instance, Japanese media reported on August 10 that a staff member at the Hong Kong bureau of the Nikkei Shimbun was questioned by authorities in connection with running an opinion ad by prodemocracy advocates a year earlier. Similarly, Democratic Party lawmaker Lam Cheuk-ting was taken into custody on charges stemming from a run-in with a criminal group clad in white T-shirts who were assaulting protesters at Yuen Long Station in July 2019.
In addition to arrests, the central government is utilizing the security law as a means to control the education system and academia in Hong Kong, including adjusting the curriculum and classroom content at primary and secondary schools, censoring library collections, and dismissing university teachers. The Education Bureau, for instance, has banned the protest anthem “Glory To Hong Kong” from being sung at schools, and the prominent prodemocracy activist and law professor Benny Tai was fired from his post at Hong Kong University over dubious allegations of misconduct. The turmoil has left educators and students with little choice but to toe the line on campus and online or risk running afoul of the authorities.
Hopes for fair and open elections are likewise dwindling. The government has postponed the Hong Kong Legislative Council elections that were scheduled for September until 2021 due to the coronavirus pandemic. This decision came on the heels of the Election Commission revoking the eligibility of 12 prodemocracy LegCo candidates, a move that almost assures that there will be no opposition ticket when balloting finally takes place. If this turns out to be the case, Beijing will gain complete control of Hong Kong’s top legislative body.
The current situation flies in the face of Article 5 of the Hong Kong Basic Law, which ensures the city will not be subject to the socialist system and policies and that the previous capitalist system and way of life shall remain unchanged for 50 years. This is the core of the so-called one country, two systems principle. However, Beijing, in implementing the new national security law, has declared an end to the policy, replacing it with enforced allegiance to the one-party system. Hong Kong residents will certainly continue to let their grievances be known, but protestors, activists, and others who stand up to the government can now expect swift punishment under the national security law.
A New Normal
When Hong Kong returned to China, expectations were high that the city’s influence would spark a sea change in neighboring provinces of Shenzhen and Guangdong and eventually reshape the structure of the nation. It was thought that by the end of the 50-year transition period, the economic and political structures of China’s interior would have been transformed, with the “one country, two systems” policy helping propel China from a socialist to capitalist system. But just 23 years after the handover, the exact opposite scenario is unfolding, with Hong Kong being brought under the heavy-handed rule of the Chinese Communist Party.
In implementing the new national security law, Beijing has sent a clear message to the world that Hong Kong is part of China’s one-party, socialist system. This development is not surprising in light of the country’s ambitions to expand its influence beyond its borders with the One Belt, One Road Initiative and its wolf-warrior diplomacy.
Leaders in capitalist countries have long assumed that exposed to the free market, China would eventually become an obliging member of the international community. This prediction appeared set to come true as the Chinese economic juggernaut began to show signs of slowing down. However, the Chinese government’s readiness to run roughshod over Hong Kong’s autonomy with the national security law and its shocking disregard for the rest of the world in withholding information about the coronavirus outbreak within its borders tells a different story. Once self-assured in their assessment, nations have been forced to reevaluate the CPC and readjust their China strategies.
The developments in Hong Kong are being watched particularly closely in Taiwan. In January of this year, Taiwanese elected Democratic Progressive Party leader Tsai Ing-wen president in a landslide. Voters, seeing China’s promise of “one country, two systems” as little more than a smokescreen for transitioning to CPC dictatorship, showed overwhelming support for her platform of protecting Taiwanese sovereignty and democracy. Barring Beijing forging a new approach for ensuring Hong Kong’s autonomy, there will be scant support in Taiwan for cross-strait unification.
By ending its dual-system policy in Hong Kong with the national security law, China has openly trampled on values like freedom, human rights, democracy, and the rule of law. Facing criticism from abroad for its draconian measures, China has scowled at its accusers and berated them for trying to interfere in its domestic affairs. The communist government has reached a point of no return, dashing whatever lingering hope there might have been for the fate of Hong Kong’s autonomy.
(Originally published in Japanese. Banner photo: Demonstrators in Hong Kong protests the new national security law in July 2020. © Getty Images/Kyōdō.)