- The new national security law in Hong Kong passed last month has wide-reaching consequences for the future of the city.
- The new law, unilaterally imposed by China, bans all forms of secession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with a foreign country, in the name of China’s national security. It threatens a maximum penalty of life in prison.
- Residents of Hong Kong, legal scholars, pro-democracy activists, and rights groups have sounded the alarm over the severity of the new bill and have agreed that Hong Kong will now likely operate in a fundamentally different way than it has in the past.
- “The pro-democracy movement — if it could continue at all — would likely need to go underground,” an activist from Hong Kong, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution under the new law, told Business Insider.
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Last month, China unilaterally passed a new national security law for Hong Kong in an aggressive assertion of dominance over its semi-autonomous territory that has seen growing pro-democracy and anti-China sentiment in recent years.
The text of the new law was kept secret by China before it was officially brought into law. The Hong Kong government formally adopted the law on the evening of June 30, kowtowing to the will of the Chinese Communist Party’s will.
The full text of the new law was only made public after it had already been passed. The text has been released in both English and Chinese, though lawyers have noted that there are worrying discrepancies between the two versions.
Both versions of the law use language that is broad, essentially banning all forms of secession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with a foreign country, in the name of China’s national security. It also allows mainland national security agencies to establish a formal presence in the city for the first time.
The maximum penalty for each crime is life in prison, with less than three years in prison suggested for minor offenses.
Notably, the national security law contains articles asserting that the scope of the law will apply to people who commit an offense both inside Hong Kong and outside of the region. The law states that it also applies to both people and companies.
In short, the law appears to apply to everyone, everywhere.
“I know of no reason not to think it means what it appears to say: It is asserting extraterritorial jurisdiction over every person on the planet,” said Donald Clarke, a specialist in Chinese law and a professor at George Washington University, wrote in a blog post on June 30.
Hong Kong’s leader Carrie Lam has defended that the national security law, calling the new law “mild.” Still, she warned ominously that those who violate the law will face “very serious” consequences. Beijing has said the new law will help reinforce the “one country, two systems” agreement it established with Hong Kong when the city was handed over to China by the British in 1997.
But residents of Hong Kong, legal scholars, pro-democracy activists, and rights groups have sounded the alarm over the severity of the new bill and many have agreed that Hong Kong will now likely operate in a fundamentally different way.
“It’s a very grim future,” said one activist from Hong Kong, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution under the new law.
“The pro-democracy movement — if it could continue at all — would likely need to go underground,” said another activist who asked for anonymity.
Ai Weiwei, a Chinese artist and prominent critic of the Chinese Communist Party, told Public Radio International that the new bill is “probably the last nail of the coffin” for Hong Kong.
The new law is already being used to clamp down on dissent — a sign of China’s crushing pressure on the city
The national security law, coupled with a recently passed national anthem law, has already been used to crack down on pro-democracy activism and reinforce communist party power over China’s once-freest city.
The national anthem law has made insulting China’s national anthem a crime punishable by fines of up to HK$50,000 (around $6,400), or up to three years in prison. Last month, schools in Hong Kong were ordered to display the Chinese national flag and sing the Chinese national anthem during special occasions.
The national security, within 24 hours of its passage, was used to arrest several protesters earlier this month who were said to be displaying pro-independence material. Hundreds of others were arrested during these same protests for “unlawful assembly” and “disorderly conduct.”
—Hong Kong Police Force (@hkpoliceforce) July 1, 2020
The Hong Kong government has used the new law to ban terms it deems critical of its government, including the popular protest phrase: “Liberate Hong Kong; revolution of our times.” It has also banned students — who made up a significant portion of last year’s anti-extradition bill protesters — from participating in political activity, including “singing songs, posting slogan, and boycotting classes,” the BBC reported.
In just the last week, pro-democracy books have been plucked from the shelves of Hong Kong’s libraries, and Hong Kong police have been granted sweeping powers to conduct raids without a warrant, censor material online, and conduct covert surveillance on residents. Some of Hong Kong’s most prominent pro-democracy activists have disbanded or have already fled the territory over concerns of persecution.
“Unless you give up altogether, you cannot get around the law,” former Hong Kong legislator and pro-democracy activist Lee Cheuk-yan told The Guardian.
Maya Wang, a senior China researcher for Human Rights Watch, told the Hong Kong Free Press news website last month that the bill could spell the end of Hong Kong.
“The end of Hong Kong is alarming not only for its people but also for the world,” she said.
The city’s status as a financial hub may be in jeopardy
The “one party, two systems” agreement in theory affords Hong Kong significant autonomy and allows the city to maintain its own political, legal, and economic systems separate from China until 2047.
But China’s totalitarian actions have shaken the city’s foundation as a special autonomous region.
US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called the new law “a brutal, sweeping crackdown against the people of Hong Kong, intended to destroy the freedoms they were promised.” In May, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said China’s decision marked a “death knell for the high degree of autonomy Beijing promised for Hong Kong.”
The city’s status as a financial hub may also be in peril as multinational companies try and navigate the consequences of the new law. Hong Kong’s stocks took a major hit after the bill was first announced in May; many American executives in Hong Kong have recently said they would consider moving capital or business operations out of Hong Kong.
Hong Kong’s economy, once considered the freest in the world by the Index of Economic Freedom of The Heritage Foundation for over two decades, has since been downgraded to second place, spurred by large-scale protests in 2019 that led to investment uncertainty.
“The ongoing political and social turmoil has begun to erode its reputation as one of the best locations from which to do business, dampening investment inflows,” the Heritage Foundation wrote in its 2020 index.
Several major global tech companies have already spoken out against the bill and said they would stop cooperating with Hong Kong requests for data processing. Popular short-form video platform TikTok said it would be leaving the Hong Kong market entirely.
US President Donald Trump said he would take steps to end preferential treatment for Hong Kong in trade and travel in response to the new law, while US lawmakers passed legislation in both the House and Senate to sanction Chinese and Hong Kong officials involved in imposing the national security law, though Trump has yet to sign it into law.
Several countries, including the US, UK, and Australia, have proposed measures to protect Hong Kong residents fleeing potential political persecution from China’s new national-security law.
Despite the uncertainty of the future, activists have pledged to continue fighting
Business Insider spoke to several Hong Kong residents and activists for this article, many of whom expressed a mixture of fear and optimism for the city as it fights for its remaining freedoms.
Kathlyn, a Hong Kong activist who asked that we only use her first name, said the future of her beloved home was uncertain.
“To be honest, I cannot imagine the future of Hong Kong now,” she said. “I believe the pro-democracy movement will still continue, yet I think it will soon be minimal.”
Isaac Cheng, the former vice-chair of the Hong Kong pro-democracy party Demosisto, told Business Insider that while many pro-democracy groups are reassessing their next steps in response to the new bill, the movement is still alive among the people.
“I’m quite optimistic about Hong Kong’s future because we’ve seen that people are willing to come out and change society and join in this social movement,” Cheng said. “Hong Kong’s future does not depend on Hong Kong [geography], but rather it depends on the people. And the hope is in the people.”
A protester named Benjamin, who asked that we only use his first name, shared a similar sense of optimism about the resolve of the Hong Kong people.
“The more the Chinese government does, the more they provoke people of Hong Kong,” Benjamin said. “They thought they could use fear to drive us out, but it will only create more anger.”
Mimi Lee, a Hong Kong activist living in Toronto, told Business Insider that she expects Hong Kongers to continue protesting despite the risks.
“I would expect (and I do hope) that people in Hong Kong can hang in there,” she said. “But of course that comes with a price.”