Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Hong Kong Two Years After the Passage of the National Security Act
Hong Kong Two Years After the Passage of the National Security Act

Hong Kong Two Years After the Passage of the National Security Act

Three years ago, roughly two million of Hong Kong’s seven million residents took to the streets to protest against a bill that would have allowed its residents to be extradited to China to be tried under its laws. Police attempts to quell the disorder led to violence. In 2020, Hong Kong passed a National Security Law that, among other things, made it easier to punish protestors and increased Beijing’s control over the city.  

Today, the streets of Hong Kong are peaceful, if hardly quiet. With encouragement from the government in Beijing, Hong Kong authorities have silenced dissidents and rendered docile a once-vibrant press corps. From all appearances, China has succeeded in bringing its wayward Special Autonomous Region to heel. Democracy activists are either in prison or living in asylum abroad, subject to harassment by pro-Chinese forces. For the United States and its allies in Asia, there are sobering lessons to be learned from China’s recent approach to Hong Kong.

The National Security Law

China and Hong Kong will surely celebrate the National Security Law for its contributions to the stability of the heretofore fractious Special Autonomous Region. That the law is being celebrated 25 years after the former British colony’s return to the “motherland” in 1997 is a symbolic coup.  

John Lee, whose previous career was in security work, will be inaugurated for a five-year term as Hong Kong’s chief executive on July 1. His election was never in doubt: Lee, Beijing’s favorite candidate, ran unopposed and received 1,416 votes from the 1,500 member election committee. Asked at a press conference after his victory whether his performance would be challenged by the perception among some people that he lacked an electoral mandate, Lee replied, accurately, that his election had been conducted strictly in accordance with Hong Kong law, adding that he was “encouraged by the overwhelming show of support, which gave him strong confidence that [his] direction is agreed and shared.”

It is these very laws, however, that are the nub of contention. Lee’s election—more accurately described as a selection—was but a further step in the erosion of Beijing’s promise to maintain the high degree of autonomy, domestic institutions, and civil liberties that were guaranteed to them by the Sino-British treaty under which the United Kingdom relinquished control over the area, and by Hong Kong’s own Basic Law. The erosion began almost immediately, in slow increments that were punctuated by increasing resistance: in 2003, an attempt to impose a national security law; a 2012 effort to impose the teaching of “patriotic education” in Hong Kong’s school system; in 2014, a change in Beijing’s pledge to allow universal suffrage; and in 2019, over an extradition bill that would permit Hong Kong residents to be extradited to China and therefore tried under its laws. All of these initiatives were in direct contradiction to the agreement that the Special Autonomous Region would be allowed to keep its separate legal system. 

During the protests in 2019 and 2020, Xi Jinping must have concluded that it was time to act. The drafting of the National Security Law took place in Beijing, not Hong Kong, and was shrouded in such secrecy that only a handful of people saw the text before it was announced. According to BBC, these did not even include the Special Autonomous Region’s then-Chief Executive Carrie Lam. Key provisions were that crimes of secession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with foreign forces punishable by up to life in prison; that damaging public transport facilities were to be considered acts of terrorism, with those found guilty ineligible to stand for public office. Companies would be fined if convicted under the law. Beijing was to establish a security office in Hong Kong staffed by its own law enforcement personnel and not under the Special Autonomous Region’s jurisdiction, while Hong Kong would establish its own national security commission to enforce the law, under the supervision of an adviser appointed by Beijing. Beijing would be empowered to appoint judges to hear cases involving national security and the right to interpret the law. Should a conflict arise between a Chinese law and a Hong Kong law, the Chinese law would have priority. Certain trials could be held behind closed doors, with those suspected of breaking the law being subject to wire-taps and placed under surveillance. Management of foreign non-governmental organizations and new agencies was to be strengthened, and the law would apply to both permanent and non-permanent residents of Hong Kong.

From Beijing’s point of view, the far-reaching provisions of the National Security Law were necessary to maintain social stability, a term the central government frequently applies to concerns over China proper. Always suspicious that foreign powers are attempting to subvert the Chinese political system in the name of liberal democracy, the leadership could not have failed to notice that many of the Hong Kong protestors carried American and, some of them, British flags. When the demonstrations turned violent, public transport facilities were indeed destroyed, though pro-democracy proponents argued, and could sometimes present videotapes to prove, that pro-government thugs were responsible.

Implementing the National Security Law

The National Security Law undermined Hong Kong’s business-friendly reputation, press freedoms, religious liberty, and education on the island. The government lost no time in implementing the provisions of the law in a manner belying earlier assurances that the National Security Law would target only a few people who had been involved in the demonstrations. According to Human Rights Watch, within the first year of the law’s taking effect more than 100 people had been arrested for violations, often many months after the events they allegedly took part in. One of them, a popular radio announcer nicknamed “Fast Beat,” arrested for shouting “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times,” was kept in solitary confinement for more than a year before receiving a 40-month jail sentence. Another, pro-democracy media tycoon Jimmy Lai, was escorted in handcuffs from his flagship paper Apple Daily while more than 200 police officers rifled through the premises. Still incarcerated, he has been denied bail.

Hong Kong’s status as the business hub of Asia was also affected. Though most businesses decided to stay, many of those who did hedge their positions. South Korean internet giant Naver, for example, deleted all data from backup servers in Hong Kong and sent them to Singapore out of concern that the new law enables confidential information to be seized by authorities in Beijing. And an Anglo-American member of an advisory body to China’s sovereign wealth fund resigned, citing developments that would make it difficult for her to stay in her role. The British government suspended its extradition treaty with Hong Kong, as did the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Germany.

Another consequence was to Hong Kong’s status as a haven for international journalism because of its press freedoms. Foreign news media reacted with alarm, with some bureaus transferring staff to Seoul or Taipei or drawing up contingency plans to do so. One survey of the media indicated that nearly half of respondents were considering or had plans to leave the city while more than half admitted to either self-censoring or avoiding reporting on sensitive topics to at least some degree. This was reflected in Hong Kong’s fall from 72nd to 80th in the Reporters Without Borders 2021 World Press Freedoms Index, and to 148th in 2022. (China is 175th, with North Korea in last place at 180.) Public gatherings are not prohibited but permits must be obtained and, according to the U.S. State Department’s 2022 Hong Kong Policy Act Report, none have yet been issued. Hong Kong police opened a dedicated hotline for reporting violations of the National Security Law that is capable of receiving photo, audio, and video submissions through texts and the WeChat messaging app.

Elections, originally scheduled for September 2020, were postponed, with the official explanation being the covid pandemic, even as numerous would-be candidates were disqualified on national security grounds. Nearly 5,000 people applied for asylum in Taiwan, with the Chinese Coast Guard, (i.e., not the Hong Kong Coast Guard) intercepting a group of escapees in a speedboat en route to the island. Even arrival in Taiwan did not ensure freedom from harassment: The proprietor of a prominent Hong Kong bookstore who was able to re-establish his shop in Taipei was doused with red paint by three pro-China sympathizers as he sat in a nearby coffee shop. Another, a UK citizen based in London, received a letter from the Hong Kong police force threatening him with a prison sentence under the National Security Law’s extraterritorial clause.

There were also repercussions for education. Schools in Hong Kong now display government-issued posters declaring that “freedom comes with responsibilities.” Starting in kindergarten, receive instruction on the National Security Law. Cartoons, such as one featuring a bespectacled owl in a mortarboard, explain the importance of the National Security Law and of their duties to the motherland. Administrators must call the police if anyone insults the Chinese national anthem. The singing of “Glory to Hong Kong,” which had been the Special Autonomous Region’s unofficial anthem and a protest song, was banned. There would be no more occasions where students such as those at the Chinese University of Hong Kong turned their backs when the Chinese national anthem was played. Legal scholar and pro-democracy activist Benny Tai was dismissed by the University of Hong Kong, and another participant in the protest was told that his contract with Hong Kong Baptist University would not be renewed.

Hong Kong’s elections rules, gerrymandered in favor of Beijing since the Special Autonomous Region’s creation, were revised in 2021 to allow even closer control. Among other changes in the complicated scheme, the share of seats directly elected by Hong Kong residents was reduced from half to just over a fifth. Candidates are now required to secure nominations from at least 10 election committee members before they can run, with the election committee itself being revamped in such a way as to virtually eliminate the influence of opposition groups—hence allowing the overwhelming victory that John Lee claims have given him a mandate for his policies.

Religion has been adversely impacted as well, despite the U.S. Department of State’s judgment that Hong Kong authorities have generally respected freedom of religion and belief. Self-censorship, which cannot be measured, maybe the reason for this benign judgment. Falun Gong’s activities, the department conceded, have been curtailed and its street kiosks banned, allegedly because they violate covid protocols. Although chief executive Carrie Lee attended Catholic schools and successor John Lee is Jesuit-educated, Catholicism has been subject to increased scrutiny. The Vatican maintains an unofficial diplomatic mission in the Special Autonomous Region, its only political entity of any kind in China. The two monsignors who staff it have no formal standing and do not meet with Hong Kong officials. Yet two Chinese nuns were arrested during a visit to their homes in Hebei and detained for three weeks before being released into house arrest without being charged. They are not allowed to leave the mainland. Cardinal John Tong, the octogenarian then-acting head of the local church during the protests, tried to curb activist voices among his flock and told priests to avoid using language that might upset political authorities in their sermons.

In May 2022, Cardinal Joseph Zen was arrested. He was later released on bail, along with three other prominent outspoken democracy advocates. Many Catholics, already distressed at a 2018 agreement in which the Holy See agreed to allow Beijing to influence the appointment of bishops in China, were further dismayed by the Vatican’s tepid response. According to the Vatican press office, the Holy See had “learned with concern the news of the arrest of Cardinal Zen and is following the situation with great attention.” The Vatican has for decades been engaged in a delicate dance with Beijing in hopes of opening formal diplomatic relations. If Zen’s arrest were meant to symbolize Beijing’s claim to the dominant position in the relationship, it succeeded admirably. Chief Executive-Elect Lee, asked whether the arrests conflicted with his principles, responded that although he still believed in the tenets of his Jesuit education, action would be taken regardless of a person’s background. Meanwhile, Catholic University in Washington, D.C., awarded an honorary degree to another prominent Hong Kong Catholic, crusading journalist Jimmy Lai. His son accepted the award on his behalf since the senior Lai, now 74, remains in prison two years after his arrest.

Three other high profile pro-democracy advocates arrested along with Zen—veteran lawyer Margaret Ng, Cantopop singer and Canadian citizen Denise Ho, and cultural studies professor Hui Po-keung, whose contract had not been renewed by Lingnan University—had, like the cardinal, all been associated with a defunct fund to support the 2019 protestors. 

The Road Ahead

Given the National Security Law and growing authoritarianism in Hong Kong, it’s unclear whether Hong Kong can maintain its position as a vibrant center of commerce. With arrests still occurring two years after the introduction of the National Security Law and three years after Hong Kong’s largest demonstration ever, all public expressions of resistance having disappeared, and 100,000 people, presumably the most dissatisfied, having left, the authorities nonetheless seem to continue to worry about the future. 

When he takes office as chief executive in July 2022, John Lee will have to face other challenges besides latent anger over constricted civil liberties. The return of another wave of COVID-19 is an ongoing concern, despite previous commendable attention to the disease. According to government statistics, as of late May 91.6 percent of the population 12 and over had received their first vaccine dose, 86 percent a second, over half a third, and a small but growing number a fourth dose. 

More crucially, Hong Kong must cope with an exodus of talented people. Bereft of natural resources and densely populated, the Special Autonomous Region’s human capital was an important reason for its previous success. Another factor in that success has been its symbiotic relationship with mainland China, whose declining economic growth rates must surely have repercussions for Hong Kong. Despite periodic upbeat reports from the Special Autonomous Region’s economic and trade office, there has been a loss of business confidence

Perhaps most acute for the short term is Hong Kong’s quarter-century-old housing crisis. According to a detailed investigation by leading Chinese financial magazine Caixin, powerful property tycoons use tactics that prolong debates and delay or prevent votes on housing policies. Hong Kong depends heavily on property sales for revenue, giving the industry great influence over politics: Falling prices mean less revenue.

That Lee, with his background in police work rather than any of the criteria that the post of chief executive normally demands—finance, infrastructure development, transport, housing, health care, and education— was selected rather than someone with more expertise in any of these areas, would seem to indicate where Beijing’s priorities lie. Yet in the end, these may prove more important to the success of the Special Autonomous Region and engender protests that, apart from the handy catchall of endangering social stability, are outside the scope of the National Security Law. Lee has called for cooperation from experts, but is not popular. Critics taunt him since his Chinese name, Lee Ka-chiu, sounds like cartoon character Pikachu, albeit one who is neither warm nor fuzzy. Ultimately, Beijing’s support may prove insufficient, as indeed it did for his predecessor Carrie Lam.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author 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.