China has imposed a national security law on Hong Kong that threatens life in prison for anyone found guilty of a wide range of crimes, from destroying public transportation infrastructure – a routine act of protest now defined as an act of terrorism – to receiving overseas “support” to foment hatred against Beijing.
The law, signed into effect Tuesday by President Xi Jinping, gives Chinese central authorities sweeping new powers over Hong Kong, a city that since its handover to China in 1997 had enjoyed freedoms not available elsewhere in the country.
Under the terms of the new law, which was unveiled on the eve of the 23rd anniversary of the handover, Chinese state security agents can operate in Hong Kong without regard for the city’s laws. Trials can be held in secret. State security police can bar suspects from leaving Hong Kong, conduct searches, freeze assets and force writers or publishers to delete information. In situations deemed complicated or serious, Chinese courts can assert direct control, while the city’s chief executive, who is selected by Beijing, now has the power to order local courts to treat some matters as national security concerns.
In effect, the new security law supersedes all local laws.
It defines terrorism broadly, including “intimidating the public in order to pursue political agenda.” It similarly criminalizes foreign collusion that includes “provoking by unlawful means hatred among Hong Kong residents towards” authorities in Beijing or Hong Kong. And it extends its reach to any act considered a breach of national security that is committed on city soil or elsewhere by a Hong Kong resident or anyone else.
The law “marks the end of Hong Kong that the world knew before,” wrote Joshua Wong, one of the city’s best-known young activists, on Twitter.
To Beijing’s supporters, however, its coming into force was cause for celebration.
“The national security law is a gift to Hong Kong,” Jonathan Choi, chairman of the city’s Chinese General Chamber of Commerce, told Phoenix television, a network partially backed by Chinese state media.
“Some say it’s a second return,” said Mr. Choi, a reference to the 1997 handover. Mr. Choi is a standing committee member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference and holds an honorary doctorate from the University of Alberta.
For much of the past year, protests have brought frequent violence to Hong Kong streets. Demonstrations against a proposed extradition law devolved into bloody confrontations with police. Many of the tactics used by the most violent protesters – including vandalizing subway stations and tossing Molotov cocktails – are specifically defined as acts of terror in the new law, punishable by life in prison.
With the new law in place, “the social unrest which has troubled Hong Kong people for nearly a year will be eased and stability will be restored, thereby enabling Hong Kong to start anew,” Chief Executive Carrie Lam said.
It “only targets an extremely small minority of offenders, while the life and property as well as various legitimate basic rights and freedoms enjoyed by the overwhelming majority of citizens will be protected,” said Ms. Lam, who claimed the “overwhelming support of the members of the public.”
In 1997, Beijing promised to preserve Hong Kong’s way of life and high degree of autonomy for a half-century, a pledge it has since honoured in many respects.
But “we will look back on the last 23 years as nothing but a deferral of the inevitable; a temporary reprieve; a mirage,” wrote Antony Dapiran, a lawyer and author, on Twitter Tuesday. “The real Handover of HK occurs at midnight tonight, precisely 23 years after the first one.” The fears that Hong Kong “would become ‘just another Chinese city,' are being realized.”
Even before the law came into effect – and before its contents were revealed – it had demonstrated its power to reshape a city whose political culture has been riven by fierce disagreement over the risks and rewards of greater proximity to Beijing.
Demosisto, a pro-democracy group, said it would disband after Mr. Wong and three other prominent members – Nathan Law, Agnes Chow and Jeffrey Ngo – announced they were stepping down.
Mr. Wong vowed to defend Hong Kong “until they silence, obliterate me from this piece of land,” then posted a Bible verse: “I may walk through valleys as dark as death, but I won’t be afraid.”
He is among a group of high-profile activists who have travelled to Western capitals to warn about the changes under way in the city and to seek the support of foreign governments in rebuffing Chinese advances. Such advocacy has enraged Beijing and carries new risks under the new law’s provisions on foreign interference.
At least two other local pro-democracy groups said they would shut down in Hong Kong and continue operations from abroad. The Civil Human Rights Front, which has organized peaceful marches that have drawn millions, said in a statement that its existence is now “in doubt.”
“What we have seen today are precautionary actions that we have to do to avoid recklessly throwing ourselves into jail,” said Bonnie Leung, a former leader with the group. “The law is there. The fear is there. The real danger is there. So we have to do something to protect ourselves.”
Pro-democracy activists say they will focus on forthcoming elections to the city’s Legislative Council, but the new law may affect those, too. It includes a clause banning from office anyone convicted of a national security crime.
Canada and other countries have issued statements of concern over the new law.
But Britain and the United States have taken action. The former colonial ruler of Hong Kong has promised a pathway to citizenship for holders of British National (Overseas) passports. And on Monday, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Washington will halt U.S. exports of defence equipment and controlled dual-use technology to Hong Kong, saying that if “Beijing now treats Hong Kong as ‘One Country, One System,’ so must we.”
For anyone still advocating for democratic freedoms in Hong Kong, “the real test begins now,” said Avery Ng, one of 15 recently arrested activists who have been called “riot leaders” by Chinese state media.
It’s a test of “bravery,” he said. “From today, we are going to live without the freedom from fear.”
With reporting by Alexandra Li
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