China has passed a controversial national security legislation for Hong Kong aimed to quash separatism and foreign interference and generally viewed as a measure to outlaw dissent and destroy the autonomy promised when the territory was returned to China in 1997.
The legislation will come into effect when it is gazetted in Hong Kong – bypassing the semi-autonomous territory’s own legislature – and is expected to be in force by the 1st of July, the anniversary of the former British territory’s return to Chinese rule (1997).
Hong Kong Chief Executive Lam Carrie Lam, speaking via video link to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, said the law would fill a “gaping hole” and would not undermine the territory’s autonomy or its independent judiciary. Lam told Hong Kong had been “traumatised by escalating violence fanned by external forces” and added that “no central government could turn a blind eye to such threats to sovereignty and national security”.
China first announced its plan to impose the legislation on the eve of the National People’s Congress in May 2020, after nearly a year of protests in the territory that began over a now-withdrawn extradition bill with the mainland. The security bill gave renewed momentum to the protests, that had calmed as the coronavirus pandemic made it more difficult to hold mass gatherings, and triggered condemnation from countries including the United States and the United Kingdom (the joint guarantor with China of HK’s autonomy and freedoms with a joint declaration signed in 1984).
Beijing is expected to set up a national security office in Hong Kong for the first time and could also exercise jurisdiction in certain cases. Judges for security cases are expected to be appointed by the city’s chief executive. Senior judges now allocate rosters up through Hong Kong’s independent judicial system. It is not known which specific activities are to be made illegal, how precisely they are defined or what punishment they entail.
What is unfortunately sure is that the legislation pushes Beijing further along a collision course with the USA and other Western governments, that have said it erodes the high degree of autonomy the city was granted at its handover.
The USA, already in dispute with China over trade, the South China Sea and the coronavirus, have begun eroding Hong Kong’s special status under national law by halting defence exports and restricting technology access.
Sinologist and Chief Analyst on Chinese Affairs at Nato Defense College Foundation. Foreign affairs writer for international magazines and publications.