National security law provokes worst anxiety since handover

June 01, 2020 09:04
The national security law was approved with 2,878 deputies from around the country voting in favour and one voting against, while six abstained. Photo: Reuters

“After this new law is passed, mainland agents will arrest people in Hong Kong and take them to trial across the border,” said Leung Kwok-king, a taxi driver. “The Hong Kong courts and police will be powerless to stop them. I worked in the mainland and know how the system there works.”

Leung expresses the fears of millions of Hong Kong people who face a crisis more serious than anything since 1997. They fear arrest by officers of the Ministry of Public Security (MPS, 公安部) and Ministry of State Security (MSS, 安全部), the secret police, who will be able to open branches here and work openly.

The National Security Law prohibits “splittism, subversion, terrorism, any behaviour that greatly threatens national security and foreign interference”. These definitions are extremely broad.

The fears extend to whether China will impose its Great Firewall on Hong Kong’s internet, to censor content that includes any of these categories. People also fear the closure of newspapers like Apple Daily, Epoch Times of Fa Lun Gong and media that criticise the central government. Will a cartoon mocking President Xi Jinping as Winnie the Pooh or a joke about his large girth be “subversion”?

How about critical messages on social media or speeches in a public forum? Would an academic essay contrasting Taiwan’s civil society favourably with that of the mainland promote “splittism”?

Hong Kong people are deeply unhappy with the procedure of the law. According to the Basic Law, Hong Kong must pass its own national security law. Instead, it is being approved by deputies to the National People’s Congress; only a handful come from Hong Kong. The vast majority have never lived or worked in Hong Kong and receive information about it through the highly censored mainland media.

For the last 12 months, these media have stressed the chaos and violence of the protests. But they have not explained demands for the Chief Executive and the LegCo to be chosen by the public and reasons for opposition to the Extradition Law. They have not reported the complete absence of dialogue between the government and the opposition. How can these deputies make such a momentous law about a place they do not represent and of which they know so little?

It is the first time that a Chinese law with criminal penalties has been introduced into Hong Kong law, bypassing LegCo and public consultation. The Hong Kong Bar Association said the NPC had no legal power to pass such a law, since it did not relate to defence and foreign affairs, as set out by Article 18 (3) of the Basic Law.

“There is no assurance the proposed legislation would comply with provisions of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Hong Kong is a signatory,” the association said.

What Hong Kong people fear most is the arbitrary use of law they have witnessed for many years in the mainland. Here the courts are independent. There, as long as the Communist Party is in power, they will never be.

“We must never follow the path of Western ‘constitutionalism’, ‘separation of powers’ or ‘judicial independence’,” wrote President Xi in a 5,000-word article in Qiushi (求是), the party’s main theoretical journal, in February 2019. “We must build a socialist legal team whose members are loyal to the Party, the state, the people and the law.”

The article repeatedly stressed the importance of the Party’s leadership over the legal system and urged the Party to strengthen this. Under Marxism-Leninism, the law is a tool of Party power. Lawyers and judges obey party directives. So, if police arrest a dissident lawyer, journalist, professor or activist, they are acting on Party orders and the person is found guilty. The verdict is decided before the trial.

Beijing regards Hong Kong’s legal system as too slow, cumbersome and ineffective in stopping the protests. Its agents have abducted at least two people from here – Lam Wing-kee in October 2015 and Xiao Jianhua in January 2017. Hong Kong police were powerless to prevent either.
In the Chinese administrative system, officers from central government bodies like the MPS and MSS rank significantly higher than police of Hong Kong, a local government. So they cannot be challenged while they carry out their work.

So, if Beijing decides that individuals like Jimmy Lai and Joshua Wong seriously threaten national security and the legal system here cannot convict them promptly enough, it may take them to courts in the mainland. The Hong Kong government will be unable to stop it.

“I used to manage a factory in Guangdong,” said Wong Min-yi, a retired businessman. “I know what it is like there. My greatest fear is that, if this new law is strictly applied, we will lose our freedoms of expression, assembly, the media and education. Under Xi, freedom for civil society has been increasingly restricted. Will the same happen here?”

-- Contact us at [email protected]

A Hong Kong-based writer, teacher and speaker.