Pro-democracy Demosisto Party members distribute flyers against China's proposed national security law in Hong Kong on May 22. (Photo: AFP)
Twenty-three appears to be a dangerous number for Hong Kong. Twenty-three years after the handover of the city to China, its basic freedoms and autonomy are endangered by the implementation of national security legislation referred to as “Article 23” — forced upon Hong Kongers against their will.
Two days ago, China’s National People’s Congress began its annual gathering in Beijing and announced the news which Hong Kongers have long feared — the enactment of legislation that will include draconian punishments for “subversion, secession and colluding with foreign political forces.” If implemented it will mean, in effect, the death of Hong Kong’s freedoms and autonomy, the end of the “one country, two systems” principle and a direct assault on the international rules-based system.
Before the handover of Hong Kong in 1997, China signed up to promises to respect Hong Kong’s way of life, set out in the Sino-British Joint Declaration, a legal treaty lodged at the United Nations. For the first 50 years after the handover — at least until 2047 — basic freedoms, human rights, the rule of law and a “high degree of autonomy” were guaranteed. Hong Kong’s Basic Law even includes a pledge to move to universal suffrage in elections for the city’s chief executive, even though no timetable is set out. When last governor Chris Patten left Hong Kong, he declared: “Hong Kong people are to run Hong Kong. That is the promise — and that is the unshakable destiny."
Over the past six years that promise has been gradually trampled on as the Chinese regime has encroached and Hong Kong’s freedoms undermined, but May 21, 2020, will go down in history as the day that promise was well and truly broken.
For not only does Article 23 pose grave dangers for Hong Kongers’ basic rights but Beijing has decided to impose the legislation on the city, effectively bypassing Hong Kong’s Legislative Council. To remove Hong Kongers’ right to legislate for themselves on this matter is to completely discard any concept of “Hong Kong people running Hong Kong.” That phrase is only correct in the sense that those in government may be technically Hong Kong-born, but they are chosen, and controlled, by Beijing.
Chief Executive Carrie Lam and her government are nothing more than puppets — Beijing’s representatives in Hong Kong, rather than Hong Kong’s to Beijing — and they proved that beyond all doubt when they wasted no time to declare, robotically and sycophantically, that they will fully comply with the implementation of the national security law.
And what precisely is the problem with the national security law? After all, every government has a right — and a responsibility — to take measures to protect national security. The difficulty is that the measures proposed are in violation of Hong Kong’s obligations as a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. If Hong Kong had universal suffrage, a democratically accountable representative government and proper protections for human rights, then a national security law, as required by Article 23 of the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, would be less controversial. But given the lack of accountability, and Beijing’s understanding of concepts such as subversion, secession and colluding with foreign political forces, it is a death knell for Hong Kong’s freedoms.
Even before the National People’s Congress announcement, we have seen the arrest of prominent pro-democracy politicians, the disqualification of elected pro-democracy legislators and extreme police brutality against protesters, medics and journalists. The new national security law will sanction a new crackdown on anyone expressing dissent.
In 2017, I was denied entry to Hong Kong, the city which had been my home for the first five years of my working life and the first five years after the handover. Under the national security law, it is highly unlikely that I will ever be able to visit Hong Kong again. And, having founded Hong Kong Watch — an advocacy organization speaking up for Hong Kong’s freedoms — it could become profoundly dangerous for Hong Kongers to be associated with me.
Will it be illegal for them to email or tweet me? Will the authorities be able to monitor their communication without restraint? Will it be a crime for them to send me information about police brutality? What will happen to Hong Kong activists who brief foreign parliamentarians, as they do often, either in person in pre-Covid-19 days or online during the pandemic?
The day before the NPC made its announcement, Chris Patten gave a talk to the Foreign Correspondents’ Club (FCC) online. He defended the right to protest, although he urged protesters to refrain from violence. Under the new law, will the FCC ever be able to hold such events again? Will the last governor himself be criminalized?
And what of the impact on religious freedom? While there is no sign necessarily that the right to worship will be directly affected, will Chinese Communist Party (CCP) agents be planted in every church and mosque and temple to listen to sermons? If a priest, pastor or imam preaches about justice, freedom, human dignity and human rights — all values that are set out in most sacred texts — will they be hauled out by the police? What will happen to the courageous bishop emeritus of Hong Kong, Cardinal Joseph Zen, whose outspoken critique of the CCP makes him a thorn in their side? Will the auxiliary bishop of Hong Kong, Joseph Ha Chi-shing — who has played a prominent role during the protests over the past year — be jailed? What about the many Christians who held candlelight vigils and sang hymns, including “Sing Hallelujah to the Lord,” during the anti-extradition bill protests last year? And will this mean the absorption of Protestants and Catholics into the CCP-controlled state church apparatus that exists on the mainland?
These are all questions which the international community — perhaps especially the Vatican — should be asking. If this law is implemented, it threatens everything that is considered normal in Hong Kong: the freedom to protest peacefully, the freedom of journalists to report openly, the freedom of priests and pastors to preach the truth.
Those freedoms have already come under increasing strain, but under this law they could disappear. And that would be a tragedy not only for the people of Hong Kong but also for everyone else who believes in freedom. It would amount to a brazen breach of an international treaty, the destruction of an international financial center whose slogan is “Asia’s world city” and the demise of one of the most open cities in Asia.
It will result in a flight of capital and, most likely, media outlets, civil society organizations and religious groups who until now have seen Hong Kong as a regional hub. If the world does not speak out and act — robustly and urgently — it will be the death of Hong Kong.
Benedict Rogers is the founder and chair of Hong Kong Watch.