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On Friday, May 22, the National People’s Congress (NPC) in China bypassed local legislature and revealed plans for a new national security and anti-sedition law in Hong Kong. The South China Morning Post explains that this law would “ban secessionist and subversive activity as well as foreign interference and terrorism” – effectively putting an end to the “one country, two systems” approach that has been in place since 1997. This law could spark more desperate and violent protests than those witnessed last year over an extradition bill allowing Hong Kong to detain and transfer criminals to mainland China.
On April 22, Foreign Policy warned that the global distraction from the COVID-19 pandemic may provide an opportunity for Beijing to tighten its grip on Hong Kong without international condemnation. The announcement of this new system of security for Hong Kong appears to corroborate this prediction. For many in Hong Kong, this means the end of the city as they know it. Bill Bishop, China expert and author of the Sinocism newsletter, says that “this move affirms that Hong Kong as we knew it is gone and rule of now is now rule by law.” Democratic Party legislator Helena Wong reports to CNN that the local government in Hong Kong “will not be able to regulate what the agents do in Hong Kong,” while her colleague, Claudia Mo, calls the new law “proof that Beijing will do anything to rein in Hong Kong at any cost.” The fate of the island city is not yet known, but fears of censorship and other erosions of civil rights may soon be realized.
The announcement of this law comes as Hong Kong is preparing to come out of a strict lockdown after experiencing relative success containing the virus. The timing of this was likely a strategic ploy to ensure that protests do not occur in the crowds that were seen last year. However, Foreign Policy reports that hundreds of arrests have already been made from demonstrations taking place across the city. Thus, as Hong Kong continues its gradual reopening, these demonstrations could become increasingly large and more violent. As well as the violence this new law will incite, it threatens China’s relationship with the United States and other Western countries, particularly Britain, with whom China is breaking an agreement made in 1997 that guaranteed Hong Kong’s autonomy for 50 years. Lastly, the New York Times claims that this law signals a failure of the “one country, two systems” model, further validating Taiwan’s unwillingness to engage with mainland China’s government. Therefore, this national security law will work against peace in the region and damage Beijing’s reputation, already battered from its perceived mishandling of the COVID-19 crisis.
Protests against mainland China’s infringement on the autonomy of Hong Kong have been occurring since 2003, gaining significant international attention during the 2014 Umbrella Movement for democracy. These protests have been relatively successful at blocking legislation put forth by the Hong Kong administration but will unlikely stop this recent national security and anti-sedition law. According to CNN, the ‘constitutional backdoor’ the central government used means the law can be passed outside of Hong Kong’s court system, leaving it out of the hands of the local government.
The national security and anti-sedition law is a blow to the already fragile relations between China and the United States, and effectively eliminates the hope for an agreement between China and Taiwan. While the COVID-19 restrictions remove the possibility for mass gatherings, the people of Hong Kong will not take this erosion of their liberties lying down, as evident in activist Nathan Law’s words to the Hong Kong Free Press: “It is a battle we must fight.”