Commentary: What next for Hong Kong and its people?
The new national security law gives China a tighter grip over Hong Kong, says Dr Lim Tai Wei.
SINGAPORE: Through a vote in the Chinese parliament, Beijing pushed through the national security law for Hong Kong (HK) on Jun 30.
Critics like the HK Bar Association lamented that the procedure for enacting the national security law through the Chinese parliament bypassed the HK legislature. But, the HK government’s failure to pass Article 23 in the first place is cited as a major reason by many for Beijing stepping in and taking over the role.
Moreover, even the experts who disagreed with the procedure for the bill’s enactment acknowledge that it is difficult to reverse Beijing’s determination to implement the national security law.
Veteran contemporary China expert Jean-Pierre Cabestan, professor of political science at Hong Kong Baptist University articulated the view that international pressure would not change Beijing’s mind.
The passing of the security bill coincided with the 23rd anniversary of HK’s handover to China on Jul 1.
At a flag-raising ceremony to mark the anniversary of the handover of HK in 1997, the city’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam made the new security law a centre-piece of her speech and hailed its importance. "It is a historical step to perfect Hong Kong safeguarding national security, territorial integrity and a secure system,"
A TIGHTER GRIP BY BEIJING
Inevitably, from here on, Beijing sees the national security law as a fix for the legal vacuum in Hong Kong.
Beijing and pro-Beijing forces in HK cite the presence of parallel laws in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and Australia to justify the need for a similar law in the city.
In HK’s case, the national security law mainly targeted the four offences of terrorism, collusion, secession and subversion. Beijing may also be keen to deploy the law to deal with some marginal pro-independence factions that have emerged and introduced the idea of secession into public debates.
It is uncertain how the new law will be applied to pro-independence activists like Chan Ho-tin and his colleagues.
The national security law also supersedes all HK laws that are not aligned with the national security law, with the right to interpret any such conflict resting with the National People’s Congress Standing Committee in Beijing.
Critics have expressed their concerns about the four broad terms to describe the offences in the national security law. For pro-democracy individuals, the broad provisions include a wide spectrum of activities which they consider protected speech.
Lam countered that the new law is an "inevitable and prompt decision to restore stability in the society" after the 2019 protests, facilitate its economic recovery and job creation.
In the immediate term however, mainland China is likely to ease-off any control or dominance of HK in the public eye and play a patient waiting game. It will likely refrain from intervening strongly in any public political space or discourse now that this law has been implemented, which will in any case help Beijing tighten its institutional political grip around HK.
TRUSTED PEOPLE IN PLACE
Moreover, Beijing is likely to coordinate closely behind the scenes with the HK government in establishing socio-political stability in the Special Administrative Region (SAR) through a selection of suitable appointees in various corridors of power. All eyes will be on any such appointments going forward.
Already, under the new national security law, the Hong Kong Chief Executive (HKCE) will have the right to appoint former or incumbent judges. Pro-democrats saw the Chief Executive’s role in judiciary selection for national security cases as a way to shore up pro-Beijing influence in the judiciary.
However, pro-national security draft law advocates counter that this allowance does not undermine Hong Kong’s judicial independence.
Basic Law Committee member and Professor of Law at the University of Hong Kong Albert Chen Hung-yee told media that “all the judges in the SAR uphold the principle of judicial independence and make their decisions impartially, and therefore, selecting a pool of judges for national security cases will not harm the core of the rule of law in Hong Kong.”
The national security law commission consists of the Chief Executive (CE), the secretaries for finance, justice, administration and security, the heads of police and customs as members and the CE also appoints a secretary general to the commission.
In addition, the central government also appoints a mainland national security advisor for the commission. The pro-democracy opposition critiqued the advisor appointment, arguing that it hurts judicial independence and HK autonomy.
However, HK’s pro-Beijing officials counter that Beijing’s decision to appoint an advisor, among other measures, was to show their sensitivities to the fact that China and HK had different political and legal systems.
Institutionally, for the implementation of the national security law, the HK Department of Justice and the police will each establish a dedicated section on national security crimes while the Office of the National Security Commissioner of the People’s Republic of China in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region will gather data and analyse the security situation in HK.
WHAT NEXT FOR PRO-DEMOCRACY GROUPS?
Especially since regular Hong Kongers now cannot take to the streets as they have been doing to express their discontentment or voice their opinions as well as facing new and unknown security institutions, many moderate pro-democracy activists are anxious about political marginalisation by the new national security law.
Different groups of protestors exhibit varying levels of discomfort in staying on in this environment. For some of the pro-democracy activists in the moderate mainstream faction their sense of loss extends to the realisation that their days of protesting are over.
Others, who are more hardliner protestors, pro-independence fighters and nativists, are determined to fight on in the so-called “hundred day war”. Already some protestors were arrested within the first 24 hours of the Act coming into force.
In terms of the Act’s impact on domestic politics, the pro-government forces are hard at work to try to win over the hearts and minds of the people. Both mainland and Hong Kong officials have reassured their audiences that the new law will leave the majority of Hong Kong residents alone.
As for pro-Beijing officials, Lam, secretary for security Lee Ka-chiu, head of the chief executive's office Chan Kwok-ki and Matthew Cheung, the chief secretary for administration, had already joined early in a petition to support the national security bill on May 28.
A new pro-Beijing organisation known as the United Front Supporting National Security Legislation set up street stands to collect signatures of support all over Hong Kong with Lam joining these pro-national security law residents and volunteers on the street for this public display of support for Beijing.
One can expect the national security law to stimulate Lam and her team henceforth to increase such street-level campaigns, national education courses as well as intensified dialogues, both public and closed-door, to enhance feedback channels with the aim of improving HK’s socio-political situation or maintaining the status quo, at the very least.
These efforts are to prevent widespread resentment from festering in mainstream Hong Kong society.
HONG KONG’S PLACE IN THE WORLD
On May 29, announcing that HK was no longer autonomous from the mainland, the US administration targeted the "full range" of US-HK agreements, including the extradition treaty, export controls on dual-use technologies, as well as HK's preferential customs and travel status.
Many analysts see this as an end to the 22-year old US’ treatment of HK differently from mainland China on trade, visas, investments and export controls.
The US is also sanctioning officials in China and HK for their direct or indirect role in its national security law. But Beijing strongly considers HK’s matters to be strictly internal affairs and an out-of-bounds as its “core interest”.
US President Donald Trump’s public statements on HK led some investors to worry that it will result in the city losing its appeal to foreign investors. “No matter what, they need to maintain Hong Kong’s unique status,” said Fred Hu, a former chairman of Goldman Sachs’s Greater China business, told media.
Investors are concerned about the impact of the new legislation on their business and personal safety as Tara Joseph, the president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong, acknowledged in a media report that “over all, this raises the risk factor for Hong Kong.”
Due to these uncertainties, some wealthy Hong Kong residents are emigrating and shifting their funds outside Hong Kong. “Increasingly these concerns are seeping into business decisions,” William Kaye, founder of investment firm the Pacific Group and himself a long-time investor in China, told media. “What is just a trickle could become a flood of capital out of Hong Kong.”
Other business sector stakeholders however opined that, if the national security law leaves Hong Kong's business law framework and the free movement of capital alone, there is still a chance that some multinational firms will remain in Hong Kong.
China is not without powerful allies on the Hong Kong issue.
On May 27, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov chided the US for interfering in China's domestic issue – a move welcomed by the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian, who in turn supported Russia's core interests and close friendship.
It may well be that Hong Kong hastens the intensifying Chinese friendship with Russia, transitioning from a growing economic and energy relationship to a geopolitical one.
Dr Lim Tai Wei is Adjunct Senior Research Fellow at the East Asian Institute at the National University of Singapore.