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China is foisting an anti-sedition law on Hong Kong that will change it for ever

Beijing’s announcement that it will force through a “national security” law in Hong Kong is, to date, the greatest infringement of China’s promises to the special administrative region. It threatens to undermine all the cherished institutions and rights that distinguish this international city from mainland China. The legislation is designed to prevent “sedition, subversion, secession and treason”, but the manner in which it is being introduced is undercutting Hong Kong’s relative autonomy, its independent judiciary and its legislature.

The issue has always been controversial. In 1989, Beijing became worried by Hong Kong’s support for the pro-democracy movement in China; it requested that the territory draft anti-subversion laws on its own after 1997, when Hong Kong was handed over to China by Britain. Although this is required by article 23 of Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, the Basic Law, it has never been enacted. In 2003, the Hong Kong government tried to introduce the legislation, resulting in street protests of half a million people. This time, following months of bitter protests, Beijing has clearly run out of patience.
At the opening of the National People’s Congress – delayed by two months because of the global pandemic – the Chinese premier, Li Keqiang, announced that Beijing would impose the legislation on Hong Kong by adding it to an annex of the Basic Law. This bypasses Hong Kong’s legislature, whose procedural gridlock climaxed last week with pro-democracy legislators being carried out by security guards while a pro-Beijing politician was installed as a committee chair. Beijing is effectively taking away Hong Kong’s right to legislate for itself, promulgating laws that will be forced upon the territory.
Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, has said that safeguarding national security is necessary and urgent, given “the mutual disruption approach” adopted by radical protesters and the deadlocked legislature. But one measure of the speed with which these measures are being rushed through was her answer at a press conference to the question of who would be responsible for enforcing the law. “I am unable to give you all the details today,” she said. The law is expected to be approved by the National People’s Congress as early as 28 May, when the plenary session winds down. It could be in Hong Kong’s books by the end of June.

The decision to bypass Hong Kong’s government and legislature shatters any pretence that the city still enjoys “the high degree of autonomy” that it was promised in 1997. The method of promulgation also undermines the independence of Hong Kong’s judiciary and its rule of law, equally prized by the Hong Kong population and the multinational businesses headquartered here. As news of the decision broke out, the stock market plunged by 5.5%, its biggest fall in five years, with property stocks and banks the worst hit.

Draft copies of the legislation, viewed by reporters in Beijing, indicate that mainland security agencies will be allowed to operate in Hong Kong. These security services often target dissidents, rights lawyers and journalists in China. In Hong Kong, it is believed that at least one of the five booksellers that disappeared from the territory in 2016 was abducted by mainland security agents. The legislation might also mean an end to the freedoms of speech and assembly that Hong Kongers have enjoyed since 1997 – even as these freedoms were gradually curtailed in recent years.

In Hong Kong, the news was met with numb disbelief. It was “the saddest day in Hong Kong’s history” according to the pro-democratic Civic party politician Tanya Chan. The very vagueness of mainland Chinese definitions of sedition, subversion and secession could criminalise groups such as religious believers, political parties advocating greater autonomy and even those who organised Hong Kong’s massive protests, some of which saw more than 1 million participants.

Given that Hong Kong’s future autonomy is now uncertain, the move also brings into question the city’s future as an international business centre. The news was met by protests in the legislative council and calls for more street action in spite of the ongoing restrictions on gatherings of more than eight people due to the pandemic.
Hong Kong’s defenders have often hoped the city would be protected by its role as a world city, thanks in no small part to the institutions that distinguish it from mainland China. Some warned that this would not be enough to protect Hong Kong from the Communist party. Before the handover, tycoon Vincent Lo Hong-shui, then chairman of the General Chamber of Commerce, issued a stark warning: “It’s really a myth to think that they will not kill the goose that lays the golden egg.” Through the enactment of this legislation, two decades later, those fears have now come true.

On 1 July 2019 – the 22nd anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to Chinese rule – protesters hung a huge red banner, inspired by the Hunger Games film series, outside the central government offices: “If we burn, you burn with us.” This strategy, known as naam-chaau in Cantonese, is about targeting the state apparatus and undermining its legitimacy. But in forcing national security legislation on Hong Kong in this way, China’s Communist party has shown that it can outplay the protest movement with the very same crash-and-burn strategy – to much more devastating effect than the protesters ever could.