How long will Beijing allow Carrie Lam to dither on Article 23?

April 25, 2019 08:01
Chief Executive Carrie Lam has repeatedly said the current political climate precludes putting Article 23 back on the table. Photo: Reuters

Once again, the highly divisive issue of Article 23 national security legislation has resurfaced in our politics. It went into a deep sleep in 2003 after a mass protest against the proposed law. There were such widespread fears the government’s far-reaching law would erode Hong Kong’s civil liberties that half a million people joined the protest march.

Even though the government – stunned by the huge turnout – shelved the proposal, the issue of Article 23 never went away. Over the ensuing years, the Beijing lobby in Hong Kong, backed by mainland and local officials, periodically made clear the special administration region had a duty under the Basic Law to enact national security legislation.

But despite the regular reminders, reviving Article 23 never gained much traction. Nearly 16 years after the 2003 protest, there is still very little public appetite for restarting debate on national security legislation. Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, aware the emotive issue could trigger further societal polarization, has repeatedly said the current political climate precludes putting Article 23 back on the table.

But that long-held position may now be shifting, judging from recent marks by Lam and Beijing’s top representative here, Wang Zhimin. In a toughly-worded speech last week, Wang claimed some local politicians were colluding with anti-China forces to threaten national security by playing the Hong Kong card. He went as far as to say China is today facing its worst national security threat since the end of the cold war, hinting it was time Hong Kong enacted Article 23.

Although Wang didn’t name any names, everyone knew he was pointing his finger at former chief secretary Anson Chan Fang On-sang and opposition legislators Dennis Kwok Wing-hang and Charles Mok, who had recently visited the United States for talks with senior White House officials.

Chan was granted a brief White House meeting with US Vice President Mike Pence, which infuriated both Beijing and the Lam administration. Both the US and Hong Kong’s opposition have long accused Beijing of eroding our autonomy under one country, two systems, a charge Lam and mainland officials have vehemently denied.

Three days after Wang’s eyebrow-raising speech, Lam publicly released a Beijing-requested report detailing why her government banned the pro-independence Hong Kong National Party. Beijing had fully supported the ban but made the unprecedented move of asking for a report. Lam used words as tough as Wang’s to make clear she would not tolerate any acts that endanger China’s national security, including advocating Hong Kong independence.

Are these tough words from Wang and Lam a prelude to resurrecting Article 23? No one can say for sure, given the fact that mainland leaders often speak in vague terms that leave people guessing. But there is increased speculation that Beijing won’t anoint Lam for a second term as chief executive unless she enacts Article 23 during her current first term. Again, no one can say for sure if this is true, given the opaqueness of how much autonomy Beijing allows Hong Kong’s chief executives.

My opinion is that every nation has a right to enact laws to protect national security. Western countries, particularly the US, have very tough national security laws which came into effect after the September 2001 terror attacks in the US. Sooner or later, Hong Kong has to enact Article 23 and there is no time like the present.

This doesn’t mean I believe Hong Kong’s tiny independence movement is a grave threat to national security. What I do believe is there is little chance the political climate will improve anytime soon to the level Lam wants to restart public discussion on either Article 23 or democratic reforms, given the huge ideological divide in our society. For that reason, if Lam wants to enact Article 23 during her current term, she needs to walk a tightrope by producing a proposal that protects our civil liberties yet satisfies her Beijing bosses.

It’s a tough call. Any new national security legislation will have to be even tougher than the one that was shelved in 2003 because back then we didn’t have an independence movement, localism, social media, and public sentiment that Beijing is tightening its grip on Hong Kong. But I believe it should be done once and for all so that it no longer hangs over us like a Damocles Sword. It’s an open question whether Lam has the political savvy to achieve this Herculean task.

Each country has its own definition of national security, which is why what Lam may consider imperative to protect the country may be seen by certain sectors of our society as infringements on civil liberties. The US Congress enacted the far-reaching Patriot Act with no debate after the September 2001 terror attacks. It came under sharp criticism by human rights groups for violating civil liberties.

The international community also slammed the US for imprisoning dozens of terror suspects without trial in Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. Public opinion eventually forced the government to wind down Guantanamo Bay and install civil liberties safeguards in its security laws.

China’s definition of national security is far more sweeping. It has reportedly interned a million Muslim Uyghurs in Xinjiang province without trial. It even got the Hong Kong government to ban a tiny pro-independence party with minimal public backing and zero means to launch terror attacks on any scale that could threaten national security.

The US has launched a global campaign against Huawei on the grounds that its links to China’s Communist Party pose national security threats to countries that allow Huawei into their networks. China alleges this global campaign is an American attempt to prevent its rise. It has used America’s democratic system to take the US government to court for ordering the US military and government departments to ban its products.

But the Chinese government also bans foreign companies from its network infrastructure on national security grounds. There is, of course, no way under China’s legal system for the US and other countries to take the Chinese government to court in the same way Huawei has taken the US government to court.

If Hong Kong, at the behest of Beijing, can ban the inconsequential National Party on security grounds, why can’t the US ban the behemoth Huawei on the same grounds? A logical answer is not possible because all countries define their own national security and the national security of others in ways that suit their interests.

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A Hong Kong-born American citizen who has worked for many years as a journalist in Hong Kong, the USA and London.