On Saturday, June 20th, the Chinese government unveiled the blueprint for a highly controversial new national security law in the semi-autonomous city of Hong Kong. Under this legislation, China can bypass Hong Kong’s independent judicial system, which according to CNN, will allow the city’s pro-Chinese top official “to handpick which judges hear national security cases.”
China will also be permitted to set up a national security office in Hong Kong, which undoubtedly will cause the civil and political freedoms of the Hongkongers to disappear quickly. However, what is most worrisome is that Beijing would have “the power to exercise jurisdiction over select criminal cases,” meaning that for the first time in Hong Kong’s history, “suspects could be extradited across the border to face trial, and potentially prison time, in [mainland China].”
When Hong Kong’s sovereignty was formally transferred from Britain to China in 1997, civil liberties and free speech were preserved under Hong Kong’s Basic Law, the city’s de facto constitution. Prior legal precedent remained intact, which allowed judicial proceedings to be conducted in a largely fair manner, as opposed to China, which CNN reports have a conviction rate of greater than 90%.
Unfortunately, since this transition was made, China has sought to further its control over Hong Kong and suppress the democratic freedoms enjoyed by the city’s civilians. This became particularly problematic in September 2002 when Hong Kong’s Chinese-backed Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa proposed to add a new anti-subversion amendment to the Basic Law, known as Article 23. Under this provision, national security laws may be implemented if any acts of “treason, secession, sedition, [or] subversion” are committed against the Chinese government. The article resulted in considerable public backlash, and after more than a half a million of Hongkongers participated in a July 1st, 2003 protest, the bill “was shelved indefinitely,” according to Time Magazine.
While the tension between China and Hong Kong has continued for almost two decades, political turmoil surrounding Article 23 resurfaced in February 2019 when a proposed extradition law resulted in further anti-government protests. Over time, the protests became violent and even resulted in the temporary closure of the Hong Kong International Airport after demonstrators flocked multiple terminals.
However, this spout of dissent did not resonate well with Xi Jinping who seized the opportunity to use the protests as a mechanism to further assert China’s control over Hong Kong. Interpreting the political unrest as acts of subversion against the Chinese establishment, Beijing announced its intention to implement a new national security law in May 2020. Unsurprisingly, this caused a resurgence of protest, countered by riot police who unleashed tear gas, pepper spray, and water cannons upon demonstrators.
Since last weekend, when the blueprint of this new national security law was revealed, the democracy striving international community has been quick to criticize China for its over assertion of authority in Hong Kong. Over 200 lawmakers, representing more than two-dozen nations, formally condemned the legislation in a jointly signed letter, stating that if Beijing cannot be trusted “to keep its word when it comes to Hong Kong, people will be reluctant to take its word on other matters.”
The United States has even threatened to terminate its special trading partnership with Hong Kong, having claimed the city no longer operates under a high degree of autonomy from China, according to BBC. Furthermore, as many as 86 Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), led by Amnesty International, united in calling the proposed national security law “a devastating assault on human rights” which must immediately “be scrapped to save Hong Kong’s freedoms.”
As China continues to threaten democratic life in Hong Kong, it is encouraging to finally witness the international community jointly stand up to Xi Jinping. However, while these acts will put China under considerable pressure, they do nothing to protect the Hongkongers from the restricted freedoms they will undoubtedly face if this law becomes officially implemented.
Thankfully, the British government has begun to consider policies that would specifically address this matter and are currently seeking to expand access to British National Overseas (BNO) passports to those living in Hong Kong. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has also promised to provide potentially millions of Hongkongers with a pathway towards British citizenship, a policy which may or may not be attainable, but is nevertheless a step in the right direction.
Governments around the world have a responsibility to formulate their policies as well and to ensure that Xi Jinping’s regime is held accountable for its attempts to suppress basic human rights in Hong Kong and other regions whose sovereignty is governed by China.