Back in 2003, the Hong Kong government’s forceful attempt to pass a similar piece of legislation in the local legislature was met with uproar from civil society and was aborted. The undemocratic nature of the government proved to be its Achilles’ heel.
More than 15 years later, the legitimacy of the local and central governments faced yet another major challenge amid the 2019 anti-extradition bill movement. But now, Beijing has taken advantage of the global covid-19 pandemic and initiated a series of assaults against Hong Kong’s autonomy while the international community has its hands tied by the virus. It first attempted to institutionalize the “supervisory power” of China’s Liaison Office in the city. The NPC is now further attacking “one country, two systems” by circumventing Hong Kong’s Legislative Council: It legislates by way of inserting the national security law directly to the Annex III of the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s constitution, which will later simply be promulgated by the Hong Kong government.
Three elements helped sustain the 2019 movement: street protests, local electoral institutions and international advocacy efforts. By introducing a series of legal instruments in the name of national security, Beijing wields massive discretionary power to punish protesters and electoral candidates on the one hand, and to cut off Hong Kong from the international society and its crucial support on the other.
Beijing has stepped up its propaganda efforts in Hong Kong by framing the recent protests, peaceful or otherwise, as terrorism. In the future, under the national security law, protesters might easily be subject to much more draconian legal punishments. Worse still, the law explicitly takes aim at foreign interventions “meddling in Hong Kong affairs.” Not only can activists or legislators who have participated in international advocacy efforts be barred from running in elections or even imprisoned, international nongovernmental organizations and other organizations, including their personnel and assets, can also be subject to legal persecution.
Ultimately, without a proper democratic legislative procedure, vague legal terms such as “secession” and “subversion” easily devolve into repressive tools that intrude on our fundamental freedoms and rights, including freedom of speech, assembly and religion. It is not implausible that any criticism against the Chinese or Hong Kong governments — or even demonstration of support for the Hong Kong movements — will soon be construed as a subversive act, punishable by law. This chilling effect will eventually snowball: It starts with widespread self-censorship in the city and then spills over its borders into the rest of the world.
The liberty of the city — from its role of international financial hub to the vibrancy of its civil society — has always been important to the interests of the international community. Furthermore, the promises of “one country, two systems,” “high degree of autonomy” and universal suffrage enshrined in the Basic Law are backed by the Sino-British Joint Declaration, which was recognized under international law. Top-down insertion of the national security law goes beyond a local matter in Hong Kong: It is intended to silence the will of the international community.
Historically, Hong Kong has been the safe haven for the dissident, the liberal-minded and the nonconformist; we speak truth to an increasingly powerful China. Amid the virus, China has revealed its true colors as a rogue state. And in the past year, we have been standing at the forefront against China’s encroaching authoritarianism.
We sincerely hope that the international community will not give in to the economic benefits China has to offer and sacrifice respect for human rights. The economic recession brought by the virus ought not to be resolved through succumbing to China’s encroaching authoritarianism; trade happens on equal and fair terms but not threatening and bullying. We urge the U.S. government to execute the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, impose sanctions on China and include human rights terms in relation to Hong Kong into trade treaties they are about to conclude with China.
We ask you, once again, to stand with Hong Kong.