Hong Kong will move into another period of unrest

Following last year’s protests in Hong Kong, the Beijing central government is all set to roll out new legal measures to plug the gaps in Hong Kong’s national security. The plan for the law was unveiled on 22 May during the opening session of China's annual National People's Congress. The draft proposal said the security law would "guard against, stop and punish any separatism, subversion of the national regime, terrorist group activities and such behaviours that seriously harm national security". Zaobao’s associate editor Han Yong Hong opines that worse days await Hong Kong, as neither side seems to be able to make a concession.
Pan-democratic legislators scuffle with security as they protest against new security laws during Legislative Council’s House Committee meeting, in Hong Kong, 22 May 2020. (Tyrone Siu/REUTERS)
Pan-democratic legislators scuffle with security as they protest against new security laws during Legislative Council’s House Committee meeting, in Hong Kong, 22 May 2020. (Tyrone Siu/REUTERS)

After being postponed for over two months, China’s annual “two sessions” — plenary sessions of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) and the National People's Congress (NPC) — opened yesterday afternoon with the CPPCC. One line in the 35-minute speech by Wang Yang, chairman of the 13th CPPCC National Committee, seemed innocuous, but in fact, packed a hidden punch.

Wang called on Hong Kong and Macau committee members to “support improvements to the mechanisms and systems relating to the implementation of the constitution and Basic Law for the Special Administrative Regions (SARs)”. To put it more plainly, Beijing is going to adjust the system so that China’s constitution and Hong Kong’s Basic Law can be better enforced in Hong Kong, and Wang is asking for Hong Kong and Macau committee members to support this.

Beijing no longer holds any hope of resolving the violent resistance and separatist tendencies in Hong Kong from within.

wang yang
Wang Yang, chairman of the National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), speaks at the opening session of the CPPCC at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, 21 May 2020. (Carlos Garcia Rawlins/REUTERS)

Such comments were not found in the CPPCC National Committee’s work report in March last year. They stemmed from the Fourth Plenum of the 19th Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party, held in late October last year. The session communiqué clearly called on the SARs to “build up a strong legal system and enforcement system to safeguard national security”.

...it can also use the fact that the NPC Standing Committee has the final interpretation of the Basic Law.

The signs are that the mission set out above at the Fourth Plenum was not just empty talk. Beijing no longer holds any hope of resolving the violent resistance and separatist tendencies in Hong Kong from within. Besides the usual measures such as putting pressure on the chief executive and Hong Kong tycoons (which is getting less effective), and working with Hong Kong’s pro-establishment political parties, it can also use the fact that the NPC Standing Committee has the final interpretation of the Basic Law. The ultimate legal measures for the central government to manage Hong Kong are to make use of that, and to change the rules of the game for Hong Kong by using the space it is afforded by the Basic Law.

At the moment, it looks like Beijing is preparing to do just that. The NPC is all set to roll out new legal measures to plug the gaps in Hong Kong’s national security.

Article 18 of the Basic Law does state: “The Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress may add to or delete from the list of laws in Annex III after consulting its Committee for the Basic Law of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region and the government of the Region..."

News broke on several Hong Kong media yesterday afternoon that the NPC session today will include a “Hong Kong version” of China’s national security law. This is how it will work: after the NPC passes the legislation, it will be added to Annex III of the Basic Law in accordance with Chapter 2, Article 18(3) of the Basic Law. That way, this nationwide legislation does not need to go through the Hong Kong Legislative Council, and the SAR government announces its implementation.

Article 18 of the Basic Law does state: “The Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress may add to or delete from the list of laws in Annex III after consulting its Committee for the Basic Law of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region and the government of the Region. Laws listed in Annex III to this Law shall be confined to those relating to defence and foreign affairs as well as other matters outside the limits of the autonomy of the Region as specified by this Law.” Currently, the laws in Annex III include clauses on citizenship as well as consular privileges and immunities.

Hong Kong media also reported that Xia Baolong, who just took office as Director of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office in February this year, made the rare move of meeting all Hong Kong CPPCC members last night, to tell them the news.

Allowing the central government to unilaterally enact laws for Hong Kong would set a precedent for “one country, two systems”, and highlight the central government’s “total control” and authority.

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Chinese President Xi Jinping (C), Premier Li Keqiang (R) and Politburo Standing Committee member Wang Yang (L) sing the national anthem during the opening session of the National People's Congress (NPC) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on May 22, 2020. (Leo Ramirez/AFP)

As of about 9pm last night, Xinhua reported that item five of the upcoming NPC session today would include a discussion of a draft decision on setting up a robust legal mechanism and enforcement system for Hong Kong to maintain national security. The Hong Kong media was proven to be accurate — the Hong Kong national security law will be the highlight of this two sessions meeting.

Allowing the central government to unilaterally enact laws for Hong Kong would set a precedent for “one country, two systems”, and highlight the central government’s “total control” and authority. The Hong Kong government’s amendments to the extradition law last year already sparked intense unrest; one can imagine that if this new national security law is implemented without going through the Hong Kong Legco, the backlash will be even worse as Hong Kong’s social movement is stirred up again over the next few months.

One might say that having rejected the extradition bill, Hong Kongers now face a harsher, higher-level national security law.

In retrospect, the extradition bill that changed Hong Kong’s economy and society last year was intended to allow suspected offenders who escaped to Hong Kong to be extradited to mainland China to face trial. Amid the controversy, the Hong Kong government subsequently raised the proposed threshold for extradition to crimes that carried sentences of seven years in prison rather than three years initially, while officials also emphasised that Hong Kong will not handle any cases involving politics or religion.

However, Hong Kongers questioned if the extradition law would lead to Hong Kong laws becoming like in mainland China and spoil the one country, two systems principle; they started violent protests that lasted six months. Even after the Hong Kong government suspended and revoked the law, protesters continued to paralyse transport routes including tunnels, and even occupied and damaged university campuses. Now, this has drawn strong countermeasures from mainland China, and the unexpected Hong Kong national security law. It would obviously apply to political issues, and activities related to independence for Hong Kong — which might become more controversial to explain and define — would be targets. One might say that having rejected the extradition bill, Hong Kongers now face a harsher, higher-level national security law.

Hong Kong will move into another period of unrest.

From last year, Hong Kongers were talking about “everyone going down together”. Now, it seems that Beijing has hardened its heart and wants to step in to manage Hong Kong. With the global pandemic, Western countries have no time to concern themselves too much with Hong Kong, which gives Beijing a window to handle the issue, since it has dealt with the coronavirus. Besides, with the strategic standoff between China and the US beyond salvaging, Beijing would have fewer qualms in its next moves. Hong Kong will move into another period of unrest.

HK protest
Members of the Democratic Party hold signs during a protest in front of the Liaison Office of the Central People's Government in Hong Kong, 22 May 2020. Democracy advocates called for protests against sweeping national security legislation China introduced Friday, as authorities in Beijing vowed to end what they called a "defenseless" posture due to "those trying to sow trouble." (Paul Yeung/Bloomberg)

Note:

Amid the Hong Kong’s government indication that it would comply with the outcome of Beijing’s proposed bill, reactions in Hong Kong have been virulent, with the pro-democracy camp deriding the proposed bill as China’s attempts to restrict Hong Kong's freedoms and calling for protests to be held this Sunday.

Elsewhere, US lawmakers have proposed a bill that would essentially sanction any Chinese official enforcing such a law. Banks that do business with entities going against the upholding of Hong Kong's autonomy would also be sanctioned. Republican senator Pat Toomey and Democrat senator Chris Van Hollen released a statement on Thursday expressing their opposition to the proposed law. Toomey said in the statement: "In many ways, Hong Kong is the canary in the coal mine for Asia. Beijing's growing interference could have a chilling effect on other nations struggling for freedom in China's shadow.”

The proposed law would also likely have an impact on whether the US continues to grant Hong Kong special trade status if Beijing does not adhere to ensuring the continued autonomy of Hong Kong, as called for in the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act 2019. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had delayed the department’s report to Congress on Hong Kong’s autonomy until after the two sessions in China were held. He said yesterday, “In Hong Kong, our decision on whether or not to certify Hong Kong as having ‘a high degree of autonomy’ from China is still pending. We’re closely watching what’s going on there.”

Reuters also reported that in emailed comments, State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus said, “Any efforts to impose national security legislation that does not reflect the will of the people of Hong Kong would be highly destabilising, and would be met with strong condemnation from the United States and the international community.”

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