The imposition late June 30 by Beijing of a National Security Law on Hong Kong has destroyed the key elements of the One Country Two Systems principle which had ruled the territory since 1997 and which were supposed to survive till 20147.
The law was greeted in sullen silence by the majority, who are known to oppose it, and by many thousands of demonstrators who (technically illegally) took the streets on July, 1, a holiday when people are supposed to celebrate the 1997 handover. A succession of businessmen, professional and other interests widely praised its implementation, purportedly because they believe that it would bring peace and stability to a city which has seen a year of major public protest.
In the first instance, pro-democracy politicians, journalists, religious and social workers, academics in some areas of politics, history, and law are most obviously at risk. However, the law is so sweeping, its procedures so modeled on those of the mainland and the definitions of “national security” potentially so wide that quietly many rich people (not least those from the mainland who saw Hong Kong as a safe haven) have been shocked into reconsidering their dispositions. Local Chinese with foreign passports or rights of abode also have cause for concern.
The 61 articles of the law aim to address threats to national security from “Subversion, Secession, Terrorism” and “Collusion with a foreign country or external elements.” Secession applies not merely to those who advocate independence for Hong Kong but the separation of “any part of the Peoples Republic of China.” The latter thus includes not only Taiwan, Tibet, and Xinjiang but the seas and islets which China claims throughout most of the South China Sea, despite those being comprehensively rejected by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in 2016.
Subversion includes any actions towards “undermining the basic system of the Peoples Republic of China” or “the body of power of the HK Special Administrative Region.” This could be taken to mean any suggestion that, for example, the power monopoly over state institutions of the Communist Party of China be reduced, or that, in the case of Hong Kong, representative government should be increased by a reduction in the number of Legislative Council sears held by business groups promoting their interests.
The Articles on collusion with External Elements go far beyond active engagement with foreign governments against China. “State secrets and intelligence” can be applied to almost anything in a country where large businesses are largely partly state-owned or have corporate information deemed a security issue. It also applies to providing individuals with information.
Watch out not just whistleblowers but, for example, any securities analyst writing negative research about companies with political connections. NGOs that raise or bring in money for social welfare purposes may also be at risk.
The law includes minimum sentences of three years in prison for several offenses, with bail under the law in the most exceptional circumstances. In practice, it may be used sparingly, at least initially. It will be aimed at removing the most obvious and radical anti-government elements from the political and media scenes and those with US connections in particular.
However, the broader purpose is to make all more aware and fearful of the power of Beijing mostly acting through its agents, notably the Chief Executive, the Liaison Office of the CPG and soon too the Office for Safeguarding National Security, which will have an office and staff in the territory.
Foreign organizations will have to decide whether to guard their actions or actions or move on. For international media, there are no obvious alternatives. Singapore in many ways is more restrictive in covering domestic issues. But Singapore is a small story that the international media rarely bother with. China – and its regional and international relations – must be covered. But from where now?
The law comes down heavily too on organizations or individuals receiving funds from abroad which are deemed dangerous to some element of national security. Beijing failed to spot the irony that the same day the law hit Hong Kong it was celebrating the 99th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party, whose early years were largely financed and directed by Stalin’s Comintern agents from Moscow.
The procedures for investigating and enforcing the new law cut across all existing Hong Kong institutions. The Hong Kong government will set up a Committee for Safeguarding National Security which will have an adviser from the CPG and report to the Office for National Security of the CPG. The Hong Kong police will set up a special unit for monitoring national security (as though they didn’t already) and a special fund for national security set up by the Financial Secretary which would not be subject to other laws (presumably including budget oversight by the Legislative Council).
Any notion of an independent judiciary is swept away. The Secretary of Justice can deem security cases to be determined without juries, and the Chief Executive can choose the magistrates and judges to hear such cases. If it wants, the CPG’s Office for Safeguarding National Security can take over Hong Kong cases. All procedures are subject to the Supreme People’s Court.
More broadly, specific groups are directly threatened. Those “disrupting the formulation and implementation of law or policies” can be disbarred from election to public office – clearly aimed at elected politicians or try to hold the passing of laws or releasee or budget funds for dubious projects.
The law also demands that the government “strengthen public guidance of schools, universities, media and the internet” and “ strengthen the management of and services for the organs of foreign governments and international organizations as well as Non-Governmental Organisations and news agencies from outside HK, Macau and the mainland.”
The survival of many academic posts and courses – such as in journalism and politics – is now at risk. Foreign media and news agencies will also need to reexamine how they can continue to cover even regional issues such as Taiwan and the South China Sea, let alone the mainland and Hong Kong, without falling foul of the police and other authorities now encouraged to witch-hunt supposed security risks.
However, don’t expect any sudden exit of money from Hong Kong or a threat to its dollar peg. Money will flow out but Beijing will continue to ensure through state companies and a slew of listings on the HK stock exchange that money flows in. Now that the mainland has taken control of the legal system the change in asset ownership will follow.