China Eclipses Hong Kong's Freedoms
The Chinese parliament agreed to move ahead with the national security legislation for Hong Kong, which has raised tensions in the city. The National People’s Congress (NPC) voted 2878 as against 1, and 6 abstentions in favor of empowering a standing committee to draft the legislation. The law aims to forbid secession, subversion, terrorism and acts jeopardizing national security. Back in July 1997, when the British lowered their flag in Hong Kong and handed over the prosperous colony to China, they agreed on a unique agreement wherein Hong Kong could retain ‘a high degree of autonomy’ as well as democratic freedoms such as the right to vote, freedom of speech, freedom of press, freedom of assembly, etc. This made the people of Hong Kong very much different from the people of mainland China, who live under an authoritative system.
The colony became a Special Administrative Region (SAR) of China with a ‘mini constitution’ of its own. The ‘Basic Law’ gave a legal system to the territory along with certain democratic rights. Following years of British control over the region, the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ principle acted as the foundation of the relationship between China and Hong Kong. While the latter is part of China, the SAR would continue to maintain economic and governing systems that are different from the mainland. China and Hong Kong share a very complex and asymmetrical relationship. It involves politics, economics, laws, trade and above all, the people. Differences between the two regions remain entrenched, specifically changing the social, political and economic conditions of Hong Kong over the past decade. History and the century-long separation of Hong Kong from China created gaps in the cultural, social and political conditions, which are difficult to erase.
The dissent between the two regions has been present for quite some time now. People from the pro-democracy and anti-government camps were unhappy with Beijing’s interference in the region. Hong Kong’s identity crisis and resistance to this interference became the heart of civil unrest in the region and it witnessed an increase in the number of such incidents, mainly from the mid 2000s. Despite Hong Kong having their own governing system, the Chinese government asserts itself in their local politics. In 2014, Beijing tried to reform the electoral procedures for the 2017 elections in Hong Kong. It proposed, only the candidates which were pre-approved by the Chinese government would be able to contest elections. This witnessed public dissent and was famously known as the ‘Umbrella Movement’, where mostly young protesters came to the streets and used ‘umbrellas’ to resist themselves from pepper spray and tear gas used by the police. The protests of 2014 was about universal suffrage that Hong Kong was assured under the Basic law and demanded more transparent elections. In June 2019, Hong Kong was sparked again by protests against an extradition law, a proposal to allow citizens tried or taken to courts for political crime to mainland China, which made the whole situation into a broader anti-China and pro-democracy movement.
Under Article 23 of the Basic Law, Hong Kong had to ratify its national security law. So, the city came up with the National Security (Legislative Provisions) Bill in 2003 but it was unpopular and had faced large-scale protests from the public. This was followed by the protests over the extradition law. China, regarding it as a threat and challenge to its sovereign authority, began to renege on its promise of allowing Hong Kong a ‘high degree of autonomy’ and decided to pass a security law for Hong Kong. On 28th May, 2020, Chinese parliament approved the controversial law, which paves the way for a Standing Committee to proceed with the working of the legislation that would be implemented in Hong Kong, annihilating the region’s autonomy. The law has not been explained in detail but it aims to target secession, subversion of state power, terrorism and foreign interference jeopardizing national security. Standing with the decision of China, Hong Kong leader, Carrie Lam, assured its people that their rights and freedom would remain. She claims that the legislation “aims to prevent, curb and sanction an extremely small minority of criminals who threaten national security, safeguarding the prosperity and stability of Hong Kong and maintaining ‘One Country, Two Systems.’” (Lee, 2020).
The Chinese decision has created chaos and unrest among the public, with repercussions like mass protests, strained Chinese-British diplomatic relations and fueled international concerns that China is oppressing public dissent and scraping away human rights in Hong Kong. According to the law, China would set up ‘agencies’ in Hong Kong ‘when needed’. The same agents have deterred anyone who raises their voice against the government in mainland China. The law could also allow Chinese authorities to prohibit international NGOs and human rights groups from operating in Hong Kong. Months of protests have crippled the city, which started with the debate around the extradition bill. This has forced businesses to shut down, severely hitting certain industries. Moreover, the new law would be a stronger blow to the financial market. With the economy already in a deteriorating condition due to coronavirus and long protests, investors are likely to flee Hong Kong as markets are tensed about the restrictions China might impose.
The international community is also displeased with the Chinese action. In relation to the US-Hong Kong Policy Act of 1992, the United States treats Hong Kong differently from the mainland in areas such as trade, immigration etc. Hong Kong reaps the benefits of preferential treatment in trade, currency and visa etc. All this makes the city an attractive place for US companies and hence, stands as the world’s sixth largest financial center and Asia’s premier financial center. However, all this will change, as the US believes that Hong Kong is no longer ‘autonomous enough’ to deserve a preferential treatment. The US President, Donald Trump, announced on 29th May, 2020 that his administration would begin the revoking process of the special status. This would affect a range of agreements of the 1992 Act, from the extradition treaty to export agreements. Withdrawing the special status will not only be a blow to Hong Kong but it would also have great impact for the US. Moreover, even without revoking the special status for Hong Kong, the step China took to undermine the city’s autonomy is enough to knock down the global credibility of the legal and financial system of Hong Kong.
Boris Johnson, PM of United Kingdom, has offered around 3 million Hongkongers the residency and citizenship right. Britain believes that the law is a ‘clear and serious breach of the Sino British Joint Declaration’ guaranteeing autonomy. Holders of BN(O) passports would be allowed to move to UK for 5 years and then apply for citizenship after a further year.
Countries such as Canada and Australia have also exhibited deep concerns and joined the spreading global opposition in relation to China threatening Hong Kong’s autonomy. The US, along with these three countries came up with a joint statement claiming, “The proposed law would undermine the One Country, Two Systems framework” (Roxburgh, 2020). They also feel that this “lies in direct conflict” with China’s international commitment to guarantee autonomy to Hong Kong. The joint statement also pointed out that the move will “dramatically erode Hong Kong’s autonomy and the system that made it so prosperous.”
Other countries such as Germany, Taiwan and Japan have also expressed their concerns and discontentment towards China’s decision to scrap Hong Kong’s autonomy. Heiko Mass, Germany’s Foreign Minister, said in a statement, “Freedom of speech and freedom of assembly as well as the democratic debate in Hong Kong have to be respected in the future” (Tan, 2020). He also firmly believes that the city’s autonomy ‘must not be undermined’. Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen vowed support for Hong Kong and claims that Taiwan “stands with the people of Hong Kong,” and promised “necessary assistance” to those who need help (Tan, 2020).
China took advantage of two things happening in Hong Kong. Firstly, Hong Kong was not being able to pass its national security law and the past year of protests raised anti-government feelings among people that led to threat of national security. Secondly, China has always focused on Shenzhen and Shanghai as its economic hubs and it did not have to fear the consequences of eliminating Hong Kong as the financial hub. Hence, introducing the law would definitely work in favor of the Chinese. Thus, Beijing went ahead with its decision that created tensions among residents, legal experts, human rights advocates and the judicial system as their freedoms were at stake along with social and economic repercussions. Justifying the legislation, China depicted Hong Kong as surrounded by forces who are seeking to tear China apart.
Critically analyzing the whole situation from both perspectives, it is hard to draw a concrete conclusion. The claim China made in order to impose the national security law can be seen as a way towards strengthening national security that witnessed some tremors in Hong Kong. On the other hand, the law can also be used against protesters or anyone who would question the system. The law might ultimately threaten the region’s autonomy under the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ framework and would allow China to have a stronger grip over the region.
China’s actions are not unique to Hong Kong, while the world is struggling with a pandemic, Beijing perceives it to be an opportune moment for asserting its control over different regions of the world. The standoff between India and China, war of words over the pandemic with US, altering its status quo in the South China Sea are some examples. The rationale behind this seems to be that the world is preoccupied with fighting the pandemic and these actions would not draw as much attention and reactions as they would otherwise. Moreover, at a time of a global crisis, China has recovered faster and is preparing itself for a post-pandemic world with all its strategic measures to create domestic as well as global pressure and stand out as a Global power in an era post the pandemic.
The people of Hong Kong definitely feel betrayed, as China did not deliver on its promise of granting them autonomy. China should have acknowledged the prosperity of the region that was possible due to the founding formula of ‘One Country, Two Systems’ and should have used this to its advantage, instead of jeopardizing the fate of the flourishing region. China should have also taken into account that many Hongkongers can flee the region for better opportunities, which would make China lose out on significant human resource from its territory. When we think of Hong Kong’s regional autonomy, a quote by Helen Keller comes to mind, “The best and most beautiful things in this world cannot be seen or even heard, but must be felt with the heart.” Hong Kong must pick its battles carefully to live successfully with the sovereignty and restore autonomy considering the current situation.
Lee, Y. N. (2020, May 28). CNBC. Retrieved from https://www.cnbc.com/2020/05/28/china-approves-proposal-to-impose-national-security-law-in-hong-kong.html
Roxburgh, H. (2020, May 28). Hong Kong Free Press. Retrieved from https://hongkongfp.com/2020/05/29/china-slams-senseless-us-move-at-un-over-hong-kong/
Tan, W. (2020, May 29). CNBC. Retrieved from https://www.cnbc.com/2020/05/29/world-leaders-react-to-chinas-controversial-national-security-bill-in-hong-kong.html
Views expressed are solely those of the author.
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