China tightens grip on Hong Kong despite 1984 treaty commitment

May 28, 2020 06:00
Photo: CGTN

China is significantly tightening its grip on Hong Kong with the announcement that its parliament, the National People’s Congress, will draft national security legislation that is to come into effect through promulgation, without involving the local legislature. The new Chinese law will include the stationing of mainland security personnel in the former British colony, which was barred by the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984, a treaty registered with the United Nations.

Britain, together with Canada and Australia, issued a statement saying they were “deeply concerned” by the development, which would undermine Hong Kong’s guaranteed “high degree of autonomy.”

Jerome A. Cohen, an authority on Chinese law, warned ominously on his blog: “The people of Hong Kong should prepare to cope with the varieties of arbitrary detention that have been inflicted on compatriots elsewhere in China.” Cohen a professor at New York University, added, “Their promised ‘enforcement mechanisms’ can be relied upon to eliminate dissent in Hong Kong almost as efficiently as they have done on the Mainland.”

On Friday, the first day of its annual weeklong session, the NPC unveiled a draft “Decision on Establishing and Improving the Legal Systems and Implementation Mechanisms for Safeguarding National Security in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.”

The document said that the Hong Kong administration has the responsibility to “establish and improve institutions and enforcement mechanisms for safeguarding national security” while the central government “will set up agencies in the HKSAR to fulfill relevant duties to safeguard national security.” Former chief executive Leung Chun-ying said an agency akin to the colonial era Special Branch could be established within the Hong Kong police force soon.

Such Hong Kong agencies are then required to cooperate with mainland agencies, such as the Ministry of State Security, which is expected to establish branches in Hong Kong. In all likelihood, the mainland agencies will take the lead and the Hong Kong ones will provide support.

The world is reacting in shock and horror to China’s action, which not only violates the Joint Declaration and the Hong Kong Basic Law, the region’s mini-constitution, adopted by the NPC in 1990. But what is happening now was foreshadowed last October, when the Communist party held a plenary session of its Central Committee.

The communique issued then said the party would “build and improve a legal system and enforcement mechanism to defend national security” in Hong Kong. Because the Basic Law says that Hong Kong “shall enact laws on its own” against such crimes as “treason, secession, sedition, subversion,” few expected that Beijing would impose legislation on Hong Kong, thereby going against a law it had itself enacted and grossly diminishing the region’s autonomy.

To be sure, Beijing has grounds for impatience. The first chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa, attempted to pass national security legislation in 2002-2003 but half a million people marched in protest. Tung was forced to withdraw his bill and no chief executive has attempted to enact such legislation since.

The current round of tightening controls began last month, when the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office in Beijing and the Liaison Office in Hong Kong for the first time intruded into the affairs of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, excoriating opposition legislator Dennis Kwok for delaying the election of a new chairman of the House Committee.

When Kwok accused them of violating the Basic Law by interfering in Hong Kong’s internal affairs, the two offices claimed to be extensions of the central government with the right to supervise affairs in Hong Kong. Chief Executive Carrie Lam leaped to their defense.

That same week, police arrested leading barrister and democracy activist Martin Lee, Apple Daily founder and financial supporter of pro-democracy causes Jimmy Lai, and 13 other high-profile persons, mostly former legislators, and charged them with involvement in unlawful protests in 2019. On May 18, the case was adjourned to enable the government to move it from the magistracy to the district court, which can mete out heavier sentences. China apparently was behind the move to impose harsher punishment.

While the NPC is now taking action on national security, there are other fourth plenum decisions that have not yet been acted upon. One was its decision to “enhance the system and mechanism over the appointment of the chief executive and principal officials.”

Apparently, Beijing is still dissatisfied with Chief Executive Lam and her team of yes-men. The Chinese government is likely to unveil the means of choosing their successors before their terms expire in June 2022. The tightening of control is still very much a work in progress.

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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.