The Hong Kong government has recently extended its Covid regulations banning gatherings of more than eight people until 4 June. How convenient. Last year, according to organisers, 180,000 people gathered to commemorate the anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre on 4 June 1989. In future, being an organiser may well land you in court under a new national security law, which Beijing announced last week at its annual National People’s Congress.
Perhaps we should have expected it. After all, the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s ‘constitution’, lays down that the Hong Kong government should enact such a law, and the big party meeting in October told us that the ‘legal systems and implementation mechanisms for protecting national security’ would be set up. But given the recent protests, now did not seem the time to add fuel to the fire. In 2003, the then chief executive Tung Chee Hwa tried, but backed down in the face of 500,000 protesters. Later he resigned on the grounds of ill health, although he is still curiously vigorous in his support of Beijing’s interests.
The General Secretary in Beijing is not for turning. Xi Jinping is a man who doubles down. The attempt to introduce an extradition law in Hong Kong led to massive protests. Beijing allowed HK Chief Executive Carrie Lam to agree only to withdrawing the extradition bill. It gave instructions that continuing protests were to be met with increasingly fierce police tactics – ruining the excellent relations ‘Asia’s finest’ had hitherto enjoyed with the people.
A further sign of tightening control was the appointment of two hardline loyalists to head up the Beijing and Hong Kong ends of the apparatus of the Chinese Communist party (CCP) for dealing with the territory. Neither Xia Baolong nor Luo Huining had any previous Hong Kong connections. Their reputations stemmed from repression (religion) and suppression (corruption), both themes dear to the heart of Xi.
Then, on 15 April Luo said that national security legislation would have to be introduced in the future. He was celebrating national security day – a recent institution which speaks volumes: try imagining a UK day dedicated to encouraging us all to help root out foreign spies.
More evidence of doubling down came with the arrest of 15 alleged ringleaders of last year’s protests, all high-profile figures who have opposed Beijing’s increasing interference in Hong Kong and called out breaches of the Sino-British Joint Declaration and Beijing’s own Basic Law. Among them were veteran lawyers Martin Lee and Margaret Ng. Jointly totalling more than 150 years in age, they are symbols rather than ringleaders. But the party understands the dangers of symbols.
All that aside, the contents of the elegantly titled ‘Decision of the National People's Congress on Establishing and Completing the Hong Kong's Special Administrative Region's Legal System and Implementation Mechanisms for the Preservation of National Security’ came as a shock (less surprising was the inevitable reference to ‘foreign forces’ interfering in Hong Kong; after all, since all Hong Kong people surely love the party, the only palatable explanation for millions coming on to the streets to protest against its embrace must be hostile western forces).
The most salient feature of the ‘decision’ is that it undermines the principle of Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong, the backbone of ‘one country, two systems’. In 1997 Beijing reserved the right to conduct foreign and defence relations on behalf of the territory; law-making was the preserve of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council (Legco). But the new law will be passed by Beijing and ‘promulgated’ in Hong Kong, an extraordinary procedure designed presumably to get round any attempts to disrupt the proceedings of Legco and thereby kill the bill (it is worth noting that until recently Legco business had been stalled through filibustering).
The legislative hammer is bad enough, but it gets worse. Much worse. The ‘organs of the Central People's Government relevant for the protection of national security’ are to set up institutions in Hong Kong ‘to lawfully perform duties related to the preservation of national security’. If the scrupulousness with which the public security departments ‘lawfully perform’ their duties on the mainland is anything to go by, that should strike fear into anyone who believes in Hong Kong’s values, such as freedom of speech, assembly or protest. Like Humpty Dumpty, for the comrades the words ‘separatist, subversive, infiltrative, or destructive activities’ will mean just what they ‘choose it to mean — neither more nor less’. As comrade Humpty Dumpty informed Alice: ‘The question is… which is to be master — that's all.’
There is more. The Chief Executive is to submit reports, including on ‘spreading national security education’. Efforts to educate youth are a perennial feature of Xi’s thinking on the mainland; he has sought to extend them to the young of Hong Kong and Taiwan — with little success. Undeterred, the issue of ‘moral and national’ education has been around for a while and attempts to introduce it in 2012 led to public protests and a government climbdown. The requirement for the Chief Executive to submit reports on national security education suggests the introduction of ‘national education’.
And there is more. The declaration enjoins the judiciary to ‘prevent, stop and punish conduct endangering national security’. Hong Kong has a common law system unlike the mainland. How is ‘endangering national security’ to be defined? In China, a flexible definition allows the party to repress at will. In the common law system there exist plenty of precedents for ‘sedition’, ‘treason’ and other terms, but will they satisfy the demands of Beijing? Will pressure be brought to bear, and can it be resisted, by judges involved in what will clearly be political cases? The rule of law in Hong Kong is one of the main pillars of its success. Interference is the equivalent of an attack of termites.
Xi always seems to act as though in a hurry. In playing global grandmother’s footsteps, he is the child who rushes large distances, rather than quietly advancing one step at a time. He may have reason to do so in Hong Kong. September will see Legco elections. The overwhelming victory of the democrats at the expense of the pro-Beijing parties in November’s district council elections hints at the possibility of the democrats winning control in Legco. It is not a risk the CCP will take. A democrat-controlled Legco would certainly not pass national security legislation. A disturbing thought is that it could be used to ensure disqualifications of candidates or worse — hints from Beijing suggest the new law could be in place by the end of August.
Where does this leave ‘one country, two systems’? Certainly in need of intensive care. Last year’s fever of protest, riot and police action is likely to worsen. The young of Hong Kong — and not just the young — will not give up their freedoms without a fight. Others will quietly leave. Even before the announcement on the national security law, enquiries about emigration and applications for British National Overseas passports were rising.
It is not impossible, if things get out of hand, that Xi might send in the People's Armed Police, ‘people’s’ being the euphemism of repressive regimes for ‘the party’s’. Departures would then become a flood.
‘Britain must act’, say the editorials. But how exactly? The days of gunboats and sanctions are over. Unlike the US we do not have a Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, under which Congress reviews the ‘one country, two systems’ periodically and can recommend withdrawing some or all of the special privileges denied to the mainland, such as technology imports, trade and immigration benefits. Certainly, we must speak out more forcefully. We can call for a debate at the UN to discuss the infringing of the Joint Declaration. It will be vetoed, but China will not appreciate the publicity. Parliament should hold a debate on Hong Kong, and its Foreign Affairs Committee a quick inquiry. The UK should be working to get more fellow democracies to join in the condemnation. We must watch for and call out any infringement of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, whose continued application the Basic Law guarantees.
It will not sway Xi Jinping. If the Covid crisis shows one thing, it is that he believes freedom is another dangerous virus. Hong Kong cannot be allowed to spread its values to the mainland, where they might threaten the CCP’s hold on power. Rather, Xi’s plan for Hong Kong is that it should gradually be absorbed into the ‘Greater Bay Area’ with Shenzhen, Macau and the cities of Guangdong. If the Joint Declaration’s formal deadline for that was 2047, the protests and the threat of the democrats controlling Legco after September’s elections have quickened the party’s pace towards touching ‘grandmother’, while she is distracted by Covid.
It is hard to avoid the conclusion that, far from showing humility for opening Pandora’s box and allowing Covid to escape, Xi has seen the past few months as an opportunity to underline China’s ambitions for its immediate region. Increased flights and sailings around Taiwan by People's Liberation Army forces, collisions in the South and East China Seas with Vietnamese, Taiwanese and Japanese boats, and now PLA incursions well inside Indian territory may be designed to send the message that not even a virus can halt China’s irresistible forces — and untouchable: so far, not a single PLA soldier has fallen casualty to the virus, despite thousands having been sent to help out in Wuhan, a claim which it is tempting to compare to the boast of the Boxer rebels 120 years ago that their rituals made them impervious to imperialist bullets.
The message for liberal democracies is clear — it was before, but few seem to have read what Xi said in his first speech to the Politburo about ensuring the ‘dominant position’ of Chinese socialism over western capitalism. We need a new China policy, one which recognises the CCP regime for what it is rather than what we wish it to be. If it is not too late, it might even be one which helps Hong Kong.
Charles Parton is an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute.