Beijing has given Carrie Lam and her government the most bitter pill of her five-year term of office – pass Article 23, the National Security Law (NSL).
Lam knows that a majority of the city’s seven million population oppose the law and do not consider it urgent, since Hong Kong poses no threat at all, military or economic, to the central government.
“The Hong Kong SAR shall enact laws on its own to prohibit any act of treason, secession, sedition, subversion against the Central People’s Government, to prohibit foreign political organizations or bodies from conducting political activities in the region, and to prohibit political organizations or bodies of the region from establishing ties with foreign political organizations or bodies,” reads the proposed law.
Police would be allowed to enter residential buildings and arrest people without court warrants. Speech deemed instigatory could be regarded as illegal, including oral, written and electronic; it would be a crime to express such words and to fail to report it. The heaviest sentence under Article 23 is life in prison.
The government introduced the legislation in 2003 but withdrew it after a protest by 500,000 on July 1, the biggest march here since 1989. Under immense pressure, Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa resigned.
Since then, the issue was put back on the back burner, both by Donald Tsang and CY Leung. Everyone knew it was a hot potato and did not speak of it during elections.
But, in a speech on Nov. 16 at the Wan Chai convention center, Li Fei, chairman of the Basic Law Committee could not have been clearer. “Hong Kong needs to implement Article 23 legislation and the consequences of not having done so already are evident. The SAR has a responsibility to implement the law to safeguard the country’s sovereignty.”
Li and his advisers know as well as Carrie Lam how unpopular is the NSL. So why is Beijing insisting on it now?
Much has changed in those 14 years – the Beijing-HK power equation, Beijing’s policy toward Hong Kong and public opinion here.
In 2003, HK was economically stronger than China, making Beijing more tolerant of HK’s political defiance. In 2003, China’s GDP was US$1.414 trillion. Last year it was US$11.2 trillion, 18.06 per cent of global GDP.
In 2003, Hong Kong was an important conduit for the foreign investment which China badly needed and major port for its goods. Last year China was anet exporter of capital. It has greatly expanded its own air and sea ports.
With Hong Kong’s greatly diminished economic importance, Beijing has taken off its kid gloves.
In the early years after the handover, Beijing was unsure how to deal with Hong Kong’s boisterous civil society and democratic opposition. The turning point came in 2014, when the NPC Standing Committee issued the ruling that killed the hope of a democratic election of Hong Kong’s chief executive.
There followed the Occupy Central protests from September 26 to December 15, involving up to 100,000 people and seriously disrupted traffic. The protesters, many young people, demanded a one-man, one-vote election for the CE, not the highly restricted proposal of the NPC. Despite public and international support for the movement, Beijing refused to budge.
Since then, Beijing’s hard-line policy has been consistent – the disqualification of legislators hostile to Beijing, prosecution of protesters in the Occupy Central and the hurried decision to build a branch of the Palace Museum here, despite popular demand for more consultation.
This latest call for Article 23 confirms Beijing’s tougher stand toward what it regards as a spoiled brat.
The demand by a small number of young people for independence has given mainland officials and their supporters here the perfect excuse to argue for the NSL. This issue is a red rag to a bull to the leaders in Beijing and the Chinese population as a whole.
Very few people here support independence and it will never happen; but it gives Li Fei and his colleagues the opportunity to repeat it endlessly.
For Beijing, the ideal scenario would be for Carrie Lam to pass the NSL during her first term. She is greatly more popular than CY Leung, has a human touch and listens to people. Her early policies deal with housing, education and other issues close to the heart of the public.
So Beijing would like her to introduce the legislation while she is still popular and the economy is growing. Her popularity and a sense of economic well-being would make people more favourable and accepting. It would be better to get it out of the way before the Legco elections of 2020 and not let it handicap the pro-establishment candidates.
Beijing is also counting on a sense of helplessness among the population. In 2014, more than two months of street protests led to nothing: what is the point of protesting if Beijing does not listen?
This law will be the heaviest cross that Carrie Lam has to bear.
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