The transformation of Hong Kong by the National Security Law

August 06, 2020 06:00
Photo: Reuters

Beijing’s imposition of a far-reaching national security law a month ago is changing the character of Hong Kong, loosening its ties to the western world to which it has been moored while greatly enhancing China’s presence.

Within Hong Kong, the police last week announced the arrest of four people, aged 16 to 21, who allegedly had announced the establishment of a body to build a “Republic of Hong Kong.” The four could face charges of secession or incitement to secession.

What was not announced but was disclosed by China’s state-owned media was that the Hong Kong police had also issued warrants for six young men in Europe and the United States.

The six included Nathan Law, an activist and disqualified former lawmaker, and Simon Cheng, former staff member of the British consulate-general in Hong Kong who has been granted asylum in Britain. Both were in London.

Interestingly, also on the list was Samuel Chu, an American citizen who has lived in the United States for more than 20 years and who heads the Hong Kong Democracy Council in Washington D.C. The council, a nonprofit organization, lobbies lawmakers and officials for support of “Hong Kong’s basic freedoms, the rule of law, and autonomy.”

Article 38 of the national security law gives it jurisdiction over people of any nationality anywhere in the world.

Hong Kong had been changing in fundamental ways in recent years. But the pace has accelerated in the last few weeks.

On the global level, Hong Kong since the promulgation of the national security law is becoming isolated, a bad sign since the extent of its internationalization was a major advantage it had over any other city in China.

Previously, because of the separation of its legal system from that of mainland China, foreign countries were willing to work with Hong Kong in legal realms such as extradition.

However, just four weeks after the law was proclaimed, three countries – Canada, Australia and Britain – had announced the suspension of their extradition treaties with Hong Kong.

China responded. The foreign ministry spokesman, Wang Wenbin, announced: “China has decided to suspend extradition treaties between Hong Kong and Canada, Australia and the UK, as well as criminal justice cooperation agreements.”

Since then, other countries have suspended treaties with Hong Kong. New Zealand Foreign Minister Winston Peters explained that his country “can no longer trust that Hong Kong’s criminal justice system is sufficiently independent from China.”

After Hong Kong disqualified a dozen pro-democracy candidates and then postponed the September elections for a year invoking the epidemic – two seismic political events – Germany cited the “further encroachment on the rights of Hong Kong citizens” and suspended its extradition treaty.

As for the United States, President Trump in an executive order July 14 announced among other things Washington’s intention to suspend the Hong Kong extradition accord.

Thus, the entire English-speaking world – plus Germany – is ending such treaties with Hong Kong, because of the perceived danger that anyone extradited to Hong Kong may end up in mainland China.

Meanwhile, China’s voice in Hong Kong is noticeably stronger. After the disqualification decision, the central government’s Liaison Office affirmed the action, saying those 12 candidates had “crossed the legal bottom line.” After Chief Executive Carrie Lam postponed the legislative election, the office called it “a responsible move to protect the citizens’ health and safety.”

Even after the University of Hong Kong fired law professor Benny Tai for involvement in the 2014 Occupy movement, the office hailed the dismissal as a move that “punishes evil and praises the virtuous.”

China, it seems, wants to put its seal of approval on Hong Kong’s actions. In the process, perhaps unwittingly, it is creating the sense that Hong Kong, with reduced autonomy, needs to look to Beijing for guidance on all matters.

Inevitably, this lowers Hong Kong’s status in the eyes of the world. A city with reduced autonomy, that is not international, where freedom is limited, where the judiciary isn’t independent, cannot be an attractive business hub.

China can only maximize Hong Kong’s value in attracting business and investment, by keeping it different from the rest of the country. If Hong Kong is not allowed to be Hong Kong, it will not be able to contribute to China as it has for 70 years.

China insists that “one country, two systems” is unchanged. If its future actions demonstrate that Hong Kong does, indeed, enjoy a high degree of autonomy, the rest of the world will surely recognize that reality and react accordingly. But, at this point, events do not point in that direction.

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.