Since China adopted its National Security Law in June 2020, Hong Kong’s government, under Chief Executive Carrie Lam, and China have sought to extinguish all opposition to Beijing and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and to eradicate Hong Kong’s core values. These include free speech, a free market economy, freedom of assembly and freedom of religious belief, all guaranteed in the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration, a UN-registered treaty. China publicly voiced its contempt for that treaty in 2017, when it said that it was a mere “historical document” without any significance.
Beijing has described its national security law, which contains four categories of offenses — secession, subversion, terrorist activities, and collusion with a foreign country or external elements to endanger national security — as a “sword” deterring people who endanger national security and a “guardian” protecting Hong Kong residents.
The national security law not only carries sentences of up to life in prison, it also gives China jurisdiction to prosecute in mainland China violations of the law that took place in Hong Kong. It is now doing just that with 12 Hong Kong activists who attempted to flee to Taiwan by boat in August and were arrested at sea, ostensibly for crossing the border illegally. Extraordinarily, the national security law also applies to alleged violations committed by anyone, anywhere in the world.
The new law is affecting all aspects of Hong Kong society. Hongkongers must now be “patriotic” to China and loyal to the Communist Party. As befits a true police state looking to exert maximum control of its citizens, Hong Kong has also established a hotline for people to report breaches of the national security law. Within hours, the hotline reportedly received thousands of calls. According to Maya Wang, senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch:
“By encouraging people to report on their friends and neighbours, the Chinese government is replicating in Hong Kong one of its most successful tools for social control: an informant culture…
“This is one of many chilling recent developments in Hong Kong, where the authorities are pulling out new tools to punish and tame the city’s pro-democracy movement.”
In November, China’s National People’s Congress Standing Committee passed legislation allowing Hong Kong’s government to oust elected politicians deemed insufficiently patriotic. In the Legislative Council of Hong Kong, there are no pro-democracy legislators left. The last ones quit in protest in November in solidarity with the ousted lawmakers. Not content with that, on January 6, authorities arrested 53 former pro-democracy politicians and activists.
They were arrested for violating the national security law by holding an unofficial primary in July 2020 to select candidates for the legislative election that was supposed to have taken place in September 2020, but which the government postponed. “The operation today targets the active elements who are suspected to be involved in the crime of overthrowing or interfering seriously to destroy the Hong Kong government’s legal execution of duties,” Hong Kong Secretary for Security John Lee announced. Preparing to participate in an election is now an act of subversion in Hong Kong.
Hong Kong district councilors — representatives of the 18 districts of the city — will also soon be obligated to take an oath of allegiance under Article 6 of the national security law. The 479 District Council seats are currently predominantly occupied by the pro-democracy camp.
“To ensure the steady and lasting implementation of ‘one country, two systems,’ Hong Kong must always be governed by patriots,” Chinese President Xi Jinping said in a recent video conference with Chief Executive Carrie Lam. “This is the fundamental principle that bears on China’s sovereignty, security and development interests, as well as Hong Kong’s long-term prosperity and stability.” Lam reportedly said that Hong Kong officials “would continue to discharge their duty to safeguard national security without fear.”
Beijing does not stop at lawmakers or district councilors. Hong Kong must be reshaped in the image of mainland China, ensuring future allegiance to the agendas of the CCP, which is why children as young as six must now learn about the national security law as part of the school curriculum, according to new guidelines issued by the government of Hong Kong on February 4. The guidelines state:
“Schools will then be able to enhance students’ awareness of national security according to their cognitive abilities so that students will grow into good nationals who have a sense of national identity, respect the rule of law and abide by the law…
“The fundamentals of national security education are to develop in students a sense of belonging towards the country, an affection for the nation, a sense of national identity, as well as an awareness of and a sense of responsibility to safeguard national security….”
According to the Guardian:
“The government warned teachers there was ‘no room for debate or compromise’ when it came to national security, and that they should ‘cultivate students’ sense of responsibility to safeguard’ it.”
Teachers and principals are also required to remove library books that are considered a breach of the national security law.
The new guidelines are accompanied by an animated video for children, which stresses that the national security law is “for our well-being” and that Hong Kong is “an inalienable part of our homeland”.
On February 22, Beijing’s top representative to Hong Kong, the head of Beijing’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, Xia Baolong, announced that Hong Kong must undergo fundamental reform to ensure that only patriots will hold key positions in all three branches of government — the executive, legislature and judiciary — as well as statutory bodies. “Key posts under every circumstances must not be taken up by anyone ‘who goes against China and disrupts Hong Kong,’” Xia said. “Those who stand in opposition to patriots are destroyers of the ‘one country, two systems’ principle and they should not be allowed to take a share of the Hong Kong special administrative region’s political power. Not now, not ever.”
Hong Kong is now a “city of fear“. Censorship is already widespread, and the crackdown is evidently meant to spread even more fear to dissuade any protests and encourage self-censorship. In July, immediately after the national security law had been passed, books by pro-democracy figures were removed from public libraries in Hong Kong for “review” to see if they violated the new law.
“Hong Kong still looks so prosperous and glamorous but deep down it’s rotting,” said Claudia Mo, one of the pro-democracy lawmakers, who was arrested in the latest crackdown on January 6.
Chief Executive Carrie Lam has announced even more initiatives designed to curb opposition. One of those initiatives will be a law designed to curb free speech even further by tackling dissemination of “fake news” and “hate speech”. Furthermore, plans are underway to make buyers of prepaid SIM cards provide their real name and proof of identity, with false information punishable by 10 to 14 years in prison. It will give the police authority to demand personal data from service providers with or without a court warrant. It will make it impossible for activists to plan any anti-government activity without becoming known to the authorities.
Thousands of Hongkongers have already left the city, including pro-democracy activists. Additionally, in the coming two years more than 600,000 Hong Kong residents could be moving just to the UK. “Ninety-six per cent consider Hong Kong no longer a safe and free home that they are used to living in, after the passing of the national security law,” a survey, conducted by the organization “HongKongers in Britain” found. The UK has said it will accept up to five million Hongkongers.
Soon, however, even the ability to flee the country may become circumscribed. A new government proposal aims to give “apparently unfettered power” to Hong Kong immigration authorities to stop people, whether Hong Kong residents or not, from leaving the city, raising criticism from the Hong Kong Bar Association (HKBA), which wrote in a submission to the Legislative Council:
“It is particularly troubling that the grounds on which such an intrusive power may be exercised are not stated in the proposed legislation, and no explanation for why such a power is necessary, or even how it is intended to be used, is set out.
“If a new power to prevent Hong Kong residents and others from leaving the region is to be conferred … It should be for the courts, not the director, to decide when it is necessary and proportionate to impose a travel ban.”
The CCP is determined to crush Hong Kong and so far, it has been able to do so at practically no cost to China internationally. Apart from the US, most countries have offered little more than words. On December 30, the EU signed the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI) with China. In doing so, irrespective of China’s crushing of Hong Kong and countless other violations of international law and human rights abuses, the EU decided to ignore the values it was founded on, among them respect for human rights and the rule of law, values which it regularly claims actively to promote.
The European Parliament adopted a resolution on January 21, calling on the EU to sanction individuals in Hong Kong and China, including Carrie Lam, over the crackdown in Hong Kong. Until now the EU, however, has declined to sanction officials involved in the crackdown on Hong Kong, despite passing a new Magnitsky-style global human rights regime in December, which would enable it to do so. On February 22, EU foreign ministers discussed the possibility of further action against Chinese authorities, including restrictions on extradition to China, but no decision was reached at the time of this writing.
Only the US has imposed sanctions on officials responsible for the crackdowns. It is important that these sanctions not be lifted.
Judith Bergman, a columnist, lawyer and political analyst, is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at Gatestone Institute.