On 20 June 2020, the National People’s Congress released a draft Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Law on the Preservation of National Security (NSL). The NSL, which will be imposed on Hong Kong by incorporation into Annex III of the territory’s Basic Law (its constitutional instrument), will likely provide legal authority to Mainland state security entities to operate openly within Hong Kong, and provide for the specific designation of certain judges to act as “national security” judges.
Much remains unknown about the substantive content of the NSL, as well as how it will be implemented. Nonetheless, the imposition of the NSL on Hong Kong represents the final abandonment of the pretence that the territory retains any meaningful degree of autonomy from the PRC. In the same vein, the official reactions to the decision to impose the NSL – ranging from op-eds in Party-run media openly salivating at the prospect of political “kangaroo courts” to Hong Kong officials defending legislation with content they do not know, and subject to a process they had no control over – make plain the extent to which the Hong Kong authorities no longer enjoy even the illusion of autonomy.
At first glance, the NSL might appear to be an abrupt move, made under cover of the Covid-19 pandemic. There have certainly been previous instances of such conduct; over five days in April 2020, Beijing threatened to disqualify a sitting Hong Kong legislator from office for filibustering and declared that its Liaison Office and the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office were not bound by Article 22 of the Basic Law (prohibiting “departments of the Central People’s Government” from interfering in matters within Hong Kong’s autonomy).
Nonetheless, the NSL was not purely the result of Covid-related expediency. Rather, it represents the culmination of two long-running developments that I have described elsewhere: the Beijing and Hong Kong governments’ treatment of political opposition as a “national security” threat, and the growing role of Mainland authorities in the territory.
Treating political opposition as a “national security” threat
Beijing has long accused Hong Kong’s political opposition of seeking independence for the territory, “colluding with foreign forces,” or both – allegations it has also regularly levelled against political opponents in Tibet, Xinjiang and Taiwan. These accusations are as risible as they are hackneyed. Despite allegations by successive Chief Executives (and the Party-controlled press) that the protests in Hong Kong were orchestrated or stoked by foreign governments, no evidence has ever been produced to support these claims.
What is remarkable, however, is the extent to which the Beijing and Hong Kong governments have normalised the practice of tarring political opponents with the labels of “foreign collusion” and “advocating independence.” In January 2015, weeks after the Umbrella Movement pro-democracy protests ended, then-Chief Executive CY Leung singled out the Hong Kong University Student Union as “advocating independence” in its publications – even though Hong Kong independence was, at best, a fringe political position with no mainstream support. If Leung had intended to conjure up a political bogeyman by attacking “pro-independence” groups, he plainly succeeded.
More significantly, Hong Kong and Beijing authorities have repeatedly invoked “advocating independence” as a pretext for limiting civil and political rights. Hong Kong and Beijing officials have frequently asserted that the mere suggestion of independence violates the Basic Law, and is – even in the absence of any violence or threats of violence – not protected expression. This reasoning, taken to its illogical conclusion, would prohibit advocacy for any changes to the Basic Law. Yet it has underpinned at least one rejection of a request to register a political party as a limited company, an outright ban of the pro-independence Hong Kong National Party, and disqualifications of numerous politicians from running for public office. In particular, in disqualifying Eddie Chu from running for the post of Village Representative, the Returning Officer determined that Chu was an “independence advocate” merely because he believed that others had a right peacefully to advocate independence – a stunning leap of logic. The underlying assumption appears to be that any sort of expression of political opposition is an unacceptable national security threat – an approach carried to its logical conclusion with the imposition of the NSL and the recent criminalisation of insults to the PRC national anthem.
Beijing’s expanding role in Hong Kong
As noted above, the NSL is likely to give Mainland state security organs official authority to act within Hong Kong. Shocking as this may seem, it represents the logical end point of a years-long process in which Beijing has arrogated ever more power to intervene in Hong Kong’s governance. As early as 2008, Cao Erbao – then head of the Liaison Office’s Research Department – suggested in the Study Times that the Liaison Office was a “second governance team,” but paid lip service to the notion that it should not intervene in matters within the scope of Hong Kong’s autonomy. Even before the Liaison Office asserted in April 2020 that it was not bound by the Article 22 prohibition against interference, the notion of non-interference was largely honoured in the breach. The Liaison Office has been accused of, among other things, threatening Hong Kong media bosses, lobbying Hong Kong legislators on domestic policy matters, and campaigning for then-Chief Executive candidate CY Leung. Nor have these interventions been confined to the Liaison Office; the abductions of bookseller Lee Bo (in 2015) and businessman Xiao Jianhua (in 2017) from Hong Kong appear to have been orchestrated by Mainland state security agencies. In that sense, the NSL merely formalises what has already been happening in Hong Kong (albeit thus far to a much smaller extent).
To be clear, the imposition of the NSL is a significant escalation in Beijing’s Hong Kong policy. But it is not merely the product of pandemic-related opportunism. On the contrary, it represents the logical end-point of gradual, years-long processes in which Beijing has undercut Hong Kong’s autonomy.
This is not to deny that there is some opportunism at work. Beijing’s haste in creating the NSL may well be motivated by the assumption that the rest of the world will be too distracted by the Covid-19 pandemic to react to the abandonment of the last pretences that Hong Kong remains autonomous. It remains to be seen whether this assumption is correct.
The opinions expressed are those of the author. They do not reflect the opinions or views of ISPI.