The specter of Article 23 returns

January 02, 2020 11:14
Xi Jinping shakes hands with HKs Carrie Lam during a meeting in Macau on Dec 19 on the eve of Macau’s 20th handover anniversary. Lam will face pressure to initiate a national security law following the months-long protests in HK. Pic: HK Govt/Reuters

The ghost of Article 23 is back to haunt Hong Kong – and politically damaged Carrie Lam is likely to be given the task to push the controversial national security law through the Legislative Council.

In recent weeks, Beijing has been vocal in its intention to have Article 23 back on Hong Kong's political agenda. President Xi Jinping and other leading mainland officials, including the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office director Zhang Xiaoming, have repeatedly said that Hong Kong urgently needs this, to prevent a repeat of the protests of 2019.

In the LegCo election in October, the pro-government side may lose its majority. So it is urgent to pass the law before the election. It would be better for LegCo to pass it, however bitter the debate, than for the National People’s Congress to issue a ruling implementing a national security law here. Lam does not have the will or ability to refuse this demand of Beijing.

The next few months will be crucial as the current legislature winds down for the election. Will Beijing risk unleashing more public wrath in Hong Kong, or does it believe Article 23 will be a powerful deterrent to keep people from the streets?

During celebrations to mark the 20th anniversary of Macao’s handover in late December, Xi and other top officials made it clear why they considered the Macau SAR such a success – its national security law, “patriotic education” and the fact that the leaders of its executive, legislature and judiciary are all “patriots”.

A national security law in Hong Kong would resemble that of Macao, which took effect on March 2009 and prevents it becoming “a base to subvert China”, to use the official parlance.

The Macao National Security Law prohibits and punishes acts of “treason, secession and subversion” against the central government, as well as “preparatory acts” leading to any of the three acts. Some of the outlined offences carry a maximum penalty of 25 years in jail. The law also prohibits foreign political organizations from conducting political activities in the SAR and prohibits organizations in the territory from establishing ties with foreign bodies.

In 2003, the Hong Kong government proposed a bill to enact such law. It caused a great controversy and a protest demonstration by around half a million people on July 1 that year. Since then, the government has not reintroduced the bill.

If it is taken up again now, the bill would address what Beijing leaders believe to be the root cause of the 2019 protests – foreign interference by the US, Taiwan and other entities. Beijing wants to outlaw links between NGOs and civic groups in Hong Kong and those abroad who support them.

In his public speeches in Macao, President Xi did not refer to Hong Kong – but the policy direction is obvious. It must do the same as Macao.

Is the passing of Article 23, then, to be the final responsibility for Chief Executive Carrie Lam before she is dismissed?

There are two pressing reasons for this. One is that the law is so toxic in Hong Kong that any candidate to replace her will decline the post if passage of the bill is a condition for accepting. Lam’s approval ratings are so low that they will never recover.

A poll published in late December by the Hong Kong and Asia Pacific Research Centre found 22.2 percent approved her performance, down from 52.7 percent in December 2018. That of Security Secretary Theresa Cheng was even lower, at 15.9 percent, down from 39.3 percent.

So why not give the stricken horse a final burden before putting her out to pasture?

The other reason is that the pro-government parties still have a majority in the Legislative Council, with 43 of the 70 seats. The Democrats have 22, with two others and three seats vacant.

The next vote for all 70 seats will be in September 2020, with 35 from geographic constituencies (GC) and 35 from functional constituencies (FC). If the result of the November District Council is repeated, the pro-government parties could lose nearly all their seats in the GCs; many of those returned to the FCs are also likely to be hostile to Article 23.

Hence, Beijing would want to get the bill through LegCo before October.

In his public comments to Carrie Lam in Beijing during her visit in December, Xi said that he fully supports her government and that the priority is to end the violence and restore order.

He said not a word about the District Council elections, amnesty for young protesters, or an independent inquiry into the violence, and also did not mention universal suffrage or political reform. He addressed none of the issues Hong Kong people have been demanding for seven months.

For Xi, what is going on in Hong Kong is a law and order issue, and a National Security Law is necessary to prevent a recurrence.

In the atmosphere of xenophobia and insecurity, an order to Lam to pass the controversial legislation looks entirely plausible.

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A Hong Kong-based writer, teacher and speaker.