China seeks to reassert its authority over Hong Kong by pushing through a national security law that critics claim will end the territory’s autonomy. The first draft of the law outlines that secession, subversion, terrorism, and activities by foreign forces that interfere in Hong Kong, would be criminalised. In addition, one section of the draft suggests that China could set up in-situ institutions in Hong Kong for defending national security. Since pro-democracy protests began in 2019, the region has been plunged into its deepest turmoil for over half a decade. The proposed new security law will allow Beijing’s security forces to operate within the city and will be used in an attempt to suppress the protests.
Mike Pompeo, the US Secretary of State, said on Friday May 22nd, 2020, that the legislation was a “death knell” for Hong Kong’s status as an autonomous city. Dominic Raab, the UK’s foreign secretary, echoed American concerns, claiming he was “deeply concerned” about the proposed new law, emphasising the “legally binding” 1984 agreement which ensured Hong Kong 50 years of autonomy. However, Zhang Yusui, spokesman for the National People’s Congress, emphasised the necessity of the law, claiming “national security is the bedrock underpinning the stability of the country.”
Enacting a law on Hong Kong without the direct involvement of its own people, legislature or judiciary fundamentally threatens the “one country, two systems” principle, which protects certain freedoms for Hong Kong, namely the freedom of assembly and speech, such freedoms that do not exist in mainland China. In particular, the provision for mainland security forces to be deployed in the region would suggest that China seek to quell pro-democracy protests, making activists more vulnerable than ever before. Legal observers and human rights advocates fear this law will be used to silence critics of the central government, as has been demonstrated in China. Concepts such as “counter-terrorism” and “national security” have been used as an excuse for an array of human rights abuses there, including the arbitrary arrest and imprisonment of dissidents and activists.
Hong Kong’s “Basic Law” says Chinese laws can’t be applied to the region unless they are listed in a section called Annex III. The laws therefore must be introduced by decree, which would bypass the city’s parliament. Although if the law is passed in the NPC, which is set to be held in Beijing over the next two weeks, Chinese authorities can effectively avoid local opposition.
The potential erosion of liberties has led to concerns that Hong Kong as a business and economic powerhouse will be threatened, with its attractiveness as a regional hub for many international companies wanting to do business in China relying on the protection of an independent judicial system. A bipartisan bill is currently being introduced by US senators Chris Van Hollen and Pat Toomey which would impose sanctions on officials and institutions who attempted to enforce any new security laws. That being said, it is unclear how many western countries will have the appetite to enforce costly sanctions at a time when the COVID-19 pandemic is causing such economic strain.