The pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong faces a serious challenge after failing to win a strike ballot against Beijing’s planned national security law, writes Colin Sparks.
The Beijing government is wasting no time in rushing through a national security law for Hong Kong. The National People’s Congress (NPC) passed the proposal on 28 May and last week its Standing Committee began to draft the details. There has been no open public consultation about the law. In fact, the plan is that the law will not be made public until after it has been published. Instead, both national and local leaders are ‘holding discussions’ with various groups, not including elected representatives who are known to oppose the law. It looks as though the law will be pushed through in time for the 23rd anniversary of the handover on 1 July.
The contours of the law that are becoming visible are very frightening. According to the official Chinese news agency Xinhua, the law will apply to people engaged in ‘secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign and external influences to threaten national security’. It was recently reported that the law may be retroactive, allowing the prosecution of people who were engaged in protests during 2019. Beijing will have an office in Hong Kong dedicated to implementing the law and mainland security forces will be able to operate in the city. It is no consolation to learn that they may behave in much the same way as the British colonial Special Branch operated, including the power to hold people indefinitely without trial. Beijing will have the right to decide that some cases should be tried in the mainland rather than under HK law. Carrie Lam, the HK chief executive, will head a new security committee, advised by an official from Beijing, and she will nominate the judges who will try cases under the law. She has called people who oppose the law ‘enemies of the people’.
The powers that Beijing, and their local agents, will have under the law, and the broad definition of what constitutes an offence, mean that the central government will be able to arrest and punish more or less anyone they choose for more or less any reason they choose. Members of the local government are already saying that opposition to the law might be grounds for excluding democratic candidates from the September elections to the Legislative Council. ‘Security’ in Hong Kong will come to mean more or less the same thing as it means on the mainland – an excuse for silencing any dissenting voices. Even if Beijing decides to leave most of the enforcement and prosecution up to the local government, all of the evidence is that Lam and her colleagues are keen to use their increased repressive powers to crush the democratic opposition. Leading members of the government have been queuing up to praise the upcoming law and, needless to say, big businesses, Hong Kong, Chinese and international, have no reservations in expressing their support for it.
The threat of the new law is part of a sharp increase in repression in Hong Kong that the democrats call a ‘White Terror’. Arrests, prosecutions and the jailing of people who took part in last year’s protests continue. The education sector has been one of the main targets. Teachers have been fired for democratic views and the survivors face compulsory ‘re-education’. Schools have been instructed as to when they must play the national anthem. The public broadcaster, RTHK, has been instructed to make its coverage of national security legislation ‘positive’ and its Deputy Director recently resigned, allegedly for health reasons. It has dropped its long-running satire show after criticism of its portrayal of the police. Other cultural activities are also under threat. One independent filmmaker has been forced to re-edit his film because the original contained a section which might land him in jail for a breach of the national anthem law.
Faced with increased repression, the democratic movement is in a difficult position. There is widespread opposition to the proposals. For example, when the Hong Kong Journalists Association surveyed their membership, 98% of respondents said they opposed the law. There are frequent demonstrations against the law and for the five demands of the movement, but they are small by local standards. The first anniversary of the movement was marked by demonstrations and there have been protests by students in support of a sacked teacher. However, the move for strike action initiated by the newly-formed independent trade unions did not reach the 60,000 votes they were hoping for. Only just over half of the 30 participating unions’ nearly 17,000 members voted, and a strike vote was carried only in six of them. There was a bigger turnout amongst school students, but the organisers decided they did not have enough support to go ahead.
The next test of the opposition will be on the 1 July anniversary of the return of China to Hong Kong. Every year there is a major pro-democracy demonstration to mark the event and there will almost certainly be protests this year. The government may attempt to ban it on health grounds, as they tried unsuccessfully to do for 4 June commemoration of the Tiananmen Square massacre. They have extended the ban on public gatherings of over 50 people are to include the anniversary, but since they would also have to suspend their own official celebrations it might be difficult to justify such a measure and enforcing it effectively would be more or less impossible. If the demonstration is legal, there is little doubt that it will be very big and even if it is banned it is likely to be substantial. The people of Hong Kong have not abandoned their democratic aspirations. The government have the upper hand at the moment in terms of preventing mass actions but they are still nowhere near winning consent for their plans.
Here in the UK the government continues to waver in its support for democratic rights in Hong Kong. There is, as yet, no clear statement that refuge in the UK will be open to anyone who wishes it and no guarantee that the holders of the British National (Overseas) passports available to some Hong Kongers will be able to settle permanently in the UK. Nor have there been any moves to extend the right to come here to the young people who have been the backbone of the movement but are not eligible for these passports. The government is keen to establish a trade deal with China, and there is every danger that they will succumb to pressure and drop any extension of settlement rights for all Hong Kongers.