Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist.
On Friday, on the first day of its annual week-long session, China’s parliament, the National People’s Congress (NPC) unveiled a draft of legislation called “Decision on Establishing and Improving the Legal Systems and Implementation Mechanisms for Safeguarding National Security in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.” That’s a fairly anodyne name for a national-security law that will allow China to significantly tighten its grip on Hong Kong.
The legislation, which will come into effect through promulgation (ie., without involving the local legislature), includes measures to station mainland security personnel in the former British colony, something that was barred by the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984.
The document also grants Hong Kong’s administration the responsibility to “establish and improve institutions and enforcement mechanisms for safeguarding national security” as the central government sets up agencies to “fulfill relevant duties to safeguard national security.” Former chief executive Leung Chun-ying said an agency akin to the colonial-era Special Branch could be established within the Hong Kong police force soon. Such agencies would then be required to co-operate with mainland agencies, such as the Ministry of State Security, which is expected to establish branches of its own in Hong Kong. In all likelihood, the mainland agencies will take the lead.
Some experts suggest the NPC’s legislation will also enable arbitrary detention. “Their promised ‘enforcement mechanisms’ can be relied upon to eliminate dissent in Hong Kong almost as efficiently as they have done on the Mainland,” Jerome A. Cohen, a New York University professor and authority on Chinese law, wrote ominously on his blog.
The world has reacted with horror to China’s action, which violates both the Joint Declaration and Hong Kong’s Basic Law, the region’s mini-constitution, which was adopted by the NPC in 1990. Britain, together with Canada and Australia, issued a statement saying they were “deeply concerned” by this undermining of Hong Kong’s guaranteed “high degree of autonomy.”
But what is happening now was foreshadowed as far back as last October, when the Communist Party of China held a plenary session of its Central Committee. The communique issued at the time said the party would “build and improve a legal system and enforcement mechanism to defend national security” in Hong Kong. Because the Basic Law says Hong Kong “shall enact laws on its own” against such crimes as “treason, secession, sedition, subversion,” few expected that Beijing would go on to impose legislation on the city, going against a law it had itself enacted to grossly diminish the region’s autonomy.
The current round of tightening controls began last month, when the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office in Beijing and the Liaison Office in Hong Kong for the first time intruded into the affairs of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, excoriating opposition legislator Dennis Kwok for delaying the election of a new chairman of the House Committee.
When Mr. Kwok accused them of violating the Basic Law by interfering in Hong Kong’s internal affairs, the two offices claimed to be extensions of the central government with the right to supervise affairs in Hong Kong. Chief Executive Carrie Lam leaped to their defence.
That same week, police arrested leading barrister and democracy activist Martin Lee, Apple Daily founder and pro-democracy philanthropist Jimmy Lai and 13 other high-profile activists, charging them for their involvement in unlawful protests in 2019. On May 18, the case was adjourned to enable the government to move it from the magistracy to the district court, which can mete out heavier sentences.
To be sure, Beijing has grounds for impatience. Hong Kong’s first chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa, attempted to pass national security legislation between 2002 and 2003, but half a million people marched in protest. Mr. Tung was forced to withdraw his bill, and no chief executive has attempted to enact such legislation since. And the protests that shook Hong Kong in 2019 hardly quenched China’s thirst for action.
But it’s not clear at what point their efforts will end. While the NPC is now taking action on national security, there are other fourth-plenum decisions that have not yet been acted upon. One was its decision to “enhance the system and mechanism over the appointment of the chief executive and principal officials.” Apparently, Beijing is still dissatisfied with Ms. Lam and her team of yes men. The Chinese government is likely to unveil the means of choosing their successors before their terms expire in June, 2022. Beijing’s tightening gripis still very much a work in progress.
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