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A nation must think before it acts.
The recent imposition of the National Security Law is by far Beijing’s most decisive effort to bring the less-than-ruly inhabitants of Hong Kong into line with central government policies. This new level of control over the former British colony did not come about easily. The strength and persistence of Hong Kong residents’ demonstrations against Beijing’s ongoing efforts to curb their civil liberties took most observers, and perhaps even the participants, by surprise. This latest, and like its predecessors, largely leaderless movement with its motto “be like water” lasted more than a year, with nightly news footage of exploding tear gas canisters, bloodied demonstrators, and extensive property damage beamed around the world. With the new National Security Law, Hong Kong’s future remains uncertain.
Like many such protests elsewhere, Hong Kong’s stemmed from longstanding grievances. In Hong Kong’s case, they date back to the agreement between the governments of Great Britain and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to return the territory to Chinese rule. Its residents could only stand by and watch the negotiations: at Beijing’s insistence, they were excluded from the deliberations. And the political system that China insisted on was at best a façade of democracy. In the end, a “one country, two systems” formula emerged. Hong Kong would become a Special Autonomous Region (SAR) of the PRC for 50 years, with reversion to take place on July 1, 1987. As an international treaty, the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984 was duly registered with the United Nations. Elections were to be held, though according to a complicated system that ensured that Beijing’s candidates would have a majority of the seats in the SAR’s unicameral Legislative Council (Legco) and that the chief executive would also be Beijing’s preferred choice. Still, the former colony’s capitalistic system would be retained: contracts and property rights would continue to be honored, and its judicial system—adapted from the British model—would be retained. China later held forth the prospect that in 2017 a new political system would allow one person, one vote.
Beijing’s choice for the first chief executive of the SAR was reassuring. The British-educated head of a major shipping company, Tung Chee-hwa had reason for loyalty to Beijing since it had bailed out his company after a financial downturn in the early 1980s. A liaison between capitalist Hong Kong taipans and Beijing communist leaders boded well for the future: under the British, Hong Kong had served as a very lucrative gateway to China for all parties involved. Surely, Beijing would not want to kill a goose that had laid so many golden eggs. In this period as well, China was easing many of the restrictions on its own citizens, giving rise to hopes that by the expiration of the 50-year period, the PRC itself would have evolved into a liberal democracy.
For a time, things proceeded relatively smoothly. There were a few problems: a Hong Kong gangster was apprehended and tried in China rather than in Hong Kong, where, as the legally minded argued, he should have been. But his guilt was not in doubt, and gangsters have few supporters. When the PRC’s National People’s Congress overruled Hong Kong’s Court of Final Appeal on whether the mainland-born children of Hong Kong residents had the right of abode in Hong Kong, some grumbled that it should be renamed the Court of Not Quite Final Appeal. But these were fairly minor matters. The shooting of unarmed demonstrators at Tiananmen and elsewhere in China in 1989 was taken by many Hong Kong democracy advocates as an foretaste of what might happen to them, but did not entirely destroy hope that a new generation of leaders in Beijing would facilitate an evolution toward a more liberal regime. Not until 2003, when Beijing, working through the SAR government, tried to impose a national security law on Hong Kong did serious, though peaceful, protests begin. The protestors won: the proposed law was withdrawn. Likewise, a 2012 attempt to impose the teaching of “patriotic education” in the school system, which critics considered brainwashing, was defeated.
The next big issue emerged in 2013, when it became clear that Beijing’s idea of universal suffrage differed significantly from that of many Hong Kong residents. The chief executive was to be chosen from a slate of candidates who had obtained the votes of at least 50 percent of the members of a carefully vetted nominating committee. And no candidate could have negative views of the Chinese state or be open to foreign influence. Hundreds of thousands took to the streets in a three-month-long Occupy Central movement. The yellow umbrellas they used to ward off police tear gas assaults became a symbol of protest; as the occupation dragged on, even carrying an umbrella was enough to arouse police suspicion. Business interests pointed out that the economy, the SAR’s life blood, was being drained away and expressed concern that Beijing could punish Hong Kong by diverting business away from Hong Kong to rivals such as Shanghai. The SAR’s leading English-language daily advised dissidents that it would better to settle for the half a loaf electoral system that Beijing offered or go back to the previous system. After three months, the protestors surrendered. While the demonstrations ceased, dissatisfaction remained. Although the movement had been spontaneous, a 17-year-old firebrand named Joshua Wong emerged as its chief spokesperson. He and others declared that they were willing to go to jail in defense of their principles. As they did. Three years later, two Hong Kong legislators were disqualified from taking office after they refused to take an oath of allegiance that affirmed Hong Kong as part of China.
The next round of mass protests erupted from the introduction of an extradition bill, under which Hong Kong permanent residents could be extradited to China, thereby exposing them to incarceration under the PRC’s opaque and corrupt legal system and infringing on the civil liberties that had been promised to Hong Kong as well as incorporated in its Basic Law. Chief Executive Carrie Lam refused to withdraw the bill, leading to escalating protests and attacks on the protestors by armed gangs believed to have been instigated by pro-PRC forces. The heretofore peaceful protestors fought back, with numerous injuries, several deaths, and great property damage. As many as two million people out of a total population of seven million took part in the largest of these demonstrations. By the time Lam withdrew the bill, the protestors had new demands, including the establishment of an independent commission to investigate police violence, rights abuses, and genuine implementation of one person one vote in the election of the chief executive and legislative council.
An uneasy calm induced by the coronavirus pandemic ensued. This appears to have convinced Beijing that the time for the next move had arrived. In direct contravention of Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, (since only a national entity can have a constitution the document is known simply as the Basic Law) stipulating that such laws are to be enacted by the Hong Kong government, China’s National People’s Congress passed a national security law providing punishments up to life sentences for vaguely defined crimes like secession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with foreign forces—with the central government as judge. Pro-democracy groups disbanded, and numerous books, including those of the now 23-year-old Joshua Wong either withdrawn from libraries or listed as “under review.”
Even before the law took effect, the publisher of the independent pro-democracy Apple Daily was arrested and accused of fomenting unrest. The discovery of a question on Hong Kong’s Diploma of Secondary Education test that asked students to argue whether Japan had done more good than harm to China during 1900 and 1945 roused China’s official press agency Xinhua to declare that Hong Kong schools had become “lawless places that unscrupulously promote heresies, seriously hurting the feelings and dignity of the Chinese people.” At the same time, Hong Kong’s legislature criminalized disrespect for China’s national anthem with fines up to $6,450 and three years in prison. Pro-Beijing supporters also began a barrage of criticism against public broadcaster Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK) for its coverage of the protests, with reporters who attempted to do so being pepper-sprayed and detained by the police. Taking preemptive steps to avoid falling foul of the new law, RTHK editors have told journalists to avoid pro-independence slogans in their news reports; there have been resignations of individuals and a popular satirical television program has been “suspended.”
Internet security is also in doubt. Google, Facebook, and Twitter have announced they have stopped processing Hong Kong government requests for user data as they review its ramifications. All three are already blocked in China. Still, they have much to lose, due to their large advertising businesses in China. TikTok, owned by Chinese internet giant Byte Dance but not available in mainland China, has withdrawn its app from Hong Kong stores and made the app inoperable to current users.
The outcome of elections scheduled for September is no longer in doubt since Beijing will be able to declare candidates who “do not love the motherland” unacceptable. Even so, police arrived at the office of an independent pollster with a search warrant and copied the files, which would give them access to opinion surveys on such topics as support for independence and views of Chief Executive Carrie Lam. A former five-star hotel has been transformed into the newly established Office for Safeguarding National Security and is no longer accepting guests. The educational system is being revamped in order to create a new generation that is loyal to the Chinese party-state, with revisions to textbooks, classroom teaching, and students’ extracurricular activities. Students are encouraged to report violations, with one teacher already having been interrogated for having mentioned to her class the case of a local bookstore owner who was kidnapped by Chinese officials.
Democracy activists are exhausted, but do not consider themselves defeated. Wearing a t-shirt announcing “they can’t kill us all,” Joshua Wong, speaking to the press from outside a courthouse, where he and fellow advocates are being prosecuted for involvement in pro-democracy protests, vowed to fight on. One of them, Nathan Law, fled Hong Kong before the law took effect. Meanwhile, a young man became the first person arrested under the new legislation for riding his motorcycle into a group of police waving the black flag of the resistance “liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times.” He has been charged with terrorism, and the slogan itself has been criminalized for implying separatism.
Not everyone has expressed resistance. Beijing has successfully pressured numerous foreign corporations, including the London-based banking giants Standard Chartered and the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation, to declare support for the law, which they declared in true Orwellian fashion will make Hong Kong safer. Chinese diaspora communities have also been persuaded to declare their support. Some businesses have vowed to leave the SAR; others, more constrained in their ability to move, have decided on a policy of watchful waiting. Police are now empowered to enter their premises, seize confidential data, freeze assets, and suspend travel documents. Whether the government will exercise this power circumspectly, if at all, and under what circumstances, remains to be seen.
The question arises on why the Chinese government chose to move now rather than wait until the 50-year period ends in 2047. Clearly, if Beijing entertained any hope that the former colony would smoothly integrate into the PRC’s system, the SAR’s actions showed that it would not. Doing nothing would make the shock of the end of Hong Kong’s special status all the more painful. Another explanation might be that it was a consequence of Xi Jinping’s decision to create mega urban clusters throughout China, with Hong Kong being incorporating into the Greater Bay Area configuration. Dismantling the boundaries between the SAR and the rest of the area, and particularly bringing its legal system into line with that of the rest of China, seemed advisable. While plausible, this is an insufficient explanation since measures that involve restricting the promises of the 1984 agreement began soon after reversion, as did resistance from increasing numbers of the population.
There has been pushback. The UK asset management firm Aviva Investors, which has major holdings in both HKSBC and Standard Chartered, has criticized both banks for supporting the national security law without knowing the details of the law or how it will operate in practice. The Trump administration has moved to end the U.S. extradition treaty with the SAR, and end its “special status” as well. Canada and Australia have withdrawn their extradition agreements with Hong Kong, and Australia has extended visas for Hong Kong residents who are currently in Australia. Great Britain has opened a path to citizenship for as many as 3 million Hong Kong residents, and Taiwan has established an office to help them to relocate there. Taiwan is the country of first choice for 29 percent of potential immigrants, with Canada, Australia, and the UK trailing by substantial numbers. Japan, always chary about absorbing immigrants, confined itself to a formal statement of “regret” at China’s actions in Hong Kong, but the ruling Liberal Democratic Party has urged the government to cancel Xi Jinping’s planned state visit to Tokyo in the fall
Beijing has accused all of interference in its domestic affairs, and has declared the 1984 declaration to be a “historic document” that lost its validity when Hong Kong reverted to Chinese rule in 1997. Her majesty’s government disagrees, saying that the UK retains a legal and moral responsibility to the people of Hong Kong to see that the guarantees in the 1984 agreement are honored. Since the agreement is registered with the United Nations, under Article 102 of the UN Charter, Britain is entitled to take disputes to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in the Hague. While making a political and ethical statement, there is no reason to think that even a favorable ruling by the ICJ would make a difference. Beijing will argue that, since what any issue involving Hong Kong is domestic, the court has no jurisdiction. As it has done with the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s 2016 ruling that the PRC’s 9-dash line in the South China Sea has no validity in international law.
Pushback notwithstanding, Beijing remains adamant and appears to have achieved complete victory. Asked whether the protests were in vain and the luster of a city once known as the Pearl of the Orient was fading, a long-time democracy advocate replied that the Hong Kong people know that the road to freedom is long and hard, adding, “It is not that we see hope and therefore we persist; it is that through our persistence, hope is created.” One cannot watch thousands of Hong Kongers, wearing hard hats, face masks, and goggles, perform the song that has become their anthem, Glory to Hong Kong, without concluding that there is indeed hope for a better future.
The views expressed in this article are those of the authors alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.