Oh, by the way, Hong Kong just disappeared.
You may have been distracted by other things, what with Canada Day celebrations and baseball’s pending return and all. Certainly you would not have been disturbed by anything your government did or said about it. But it is true: What once was the world’s freest city, a glittering tribute to the human spirit, has just been swallowed whole by Communist China, as surely as if troops and tanks had invaded.
The freedoms and autonomy of the former British colony, supposedly guaranteed under the agreement governing its handover to Chinese rule in 1997 – “one country, two systems” was the slogan – have been obliterated at a stroke. With the passage earlier this week of the Law of the People’s Republic of China on Safeguarding National Security in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, Hong Kong is no longer free or autonomous.
The law, drafted in secret and implemented without consultation – the text was only released after it had been approved – aims to “prevent, suppress and impose punishment for any act or activity endangering national security.”
Ostensibly, this would be the work of a locally appointed Committee for Safeguarding National Security, enforced by the city’s police and adjudicated by its courts. On its own, this would represent an expansive threat to civil liberties. The committee’s work would be conducted in secret. Police would have broad new powers of search, seizure and surveillance. Trials in national-security cases could be held in secret and without juries at the discretion of Hong Kong’s government, before judges selected by its chief executive.
But who’s kidding whom: The committee, the chief executive, even the police and prosecution services, will all answer to the Central People’s Government in Beijing, whether directly or through a centrally appointed Office for Safeguarding National Security, whose agents would for the first time be permitted to operate in the city, not only legally but with impunity – the law explicitly exempts them from Hong Kong law or law enforcement.
The office would have the power to take over cases where the alleged threat to national security was especially “complex” or “serious,” whisking suspects off to the mainland, to be tried and sentenced by Chinese courts.
What sorts of activities would run afoul of the law? It names four: secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with a foreign country. But secession need not be pursued by force. Subversion includes not only the violent overthrow of the government but “disrupting or undermining” its work. Terrorism is defined to include “sabotage” of public transit. And collusion would seem to embrace any effort to solicit support abroad, for purposes ranging from opposition to mainland rule (“disrupting the formulation and implementation of laws”) to “provoking hatred” of the Chinese government.
The law applies not only to Hong Kong citizens, but to foreign nationals; not only individuals, but companies and organizations; not only in the city, but anywhere in the world. The penalties run as high as life imprisonment. And interpretation of the law is vested not in the courts, but in the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress.
It is a breathtaking assault on the freedom of the city and its inhabitants, dwarfing the extradition law that had, a year earlier, brought millions of Hong Kongers into the streets. Already, protesters are deleting their social-media posts, disbanding their organizations and leaving the city if they can. Banks and other corporations may follow, rather than expose their employees to the risk of arrest and imprisonment.
For after this, there can no longer be any assurance of due process or the protection of human rights in Hong Kong. Canadians have recently learned to be wary of mainland China’s reach, given the kidnapping of two of our citizens, Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig. Now imagine a city of 7.5 million, under permanent threat of the same.
But the true significance of the law is not just what it contains, but the fact of its passage, in defiance not only of the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration, but of the broader international community. With this law, the Xi dictatorship is attempting not just to crush pro-democracy opposition in Hong Kong, or to bend the territory to its will, but to assert its dominance more generally. Hong Kong is on the front line of a worldwide struggle between freedom and tyranny, and on the evidence of the early reaction, tyranny has won a famous victory.
What, after all, has been the response? The president of the European Council, Charles Michel, said “we deplore this decision.” The United States took steps to end Hong Kong’s special status under U.S. trade law. Britain said it would offer asylum and a “route to citizenship” to three million of Hong Kong’s citizens, those in possession of a British National (Overseas) passport. Australia said it might follow.
Oh, and the United Nations Human Rights Council – let’s just repeat that, the United Nations Human Rights Council – issued not one but two statements on the matter. One opposed the law and was signed by 27 states; the other supported it and was signed by 53.
And that’s about it, so far at least.
No wonder China acted as it did. It knew it would pay no significant price for snuffing out the last lights of human freedom in Hong Kong, any more than it has for any of its other transgressions. “The era when the Chinese cared what others thought,” crowed Zhang Xiaoming, the deputy director of China’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, after Washington’s most recent rebuke, “is in the past, never to return.”
As for Canada, well, I’m sure there’s a statement somewhere from somebody in this government, but I’ll be damned if I can find it. The Prime Minister’s website lists a statement on “Canadian Multiculturalism Day” and another on “the formation of a new government in Ireland.” But on the subjugation of 7.5 million free people – 300,000 of them Canadian citizens – to the butchers of Tiananmen Square: as of Thursday, not a murmur. Hong Kongers are literally begging for our support, but it seems we can’t be bothered.
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