Beijing hopes that the imposition of the ‘National Security Law’ will mean the end of the democratic movement in Hong Kong. Colin Sparks argues that they are likely to be disappointed.
The Hong Kong police have wasted no time in using the new national security law. Adopted unanimously, of course, by the mainland National People’s Congress Standing Committee on 30 June and immediately inserted into the Hong Kong Basic Law, the very first arrests were made using its powers just a day later, on 1 July. Among the 10 people held under the law is a 15-year-old girl, whose newly minted crime was to wave a banner calling for Hong Kong independence. These arrests were part of a total of 370 made when the police broke up peaceful demonstrations protesting against the new law.
This prompt use of the new law makes a nonsense of the claims by Beijing and the Hong Kong government that the only people against whom it will be directed are a tiny number of people committing serious crimes that endanger the Chinese state. If a young woman waving a banner is a threat to the survival of the Beijing government, then any expression of dissent can be criminalized. How ill-defined the situation is was demonstrated by the only light moment in the last few days. The police briefly arrested a football fan celebrating the Premier League title by shouting ‘Long Live Liverpool’, in the belief that this represented a crime under the new law.
What’s in the national security law?
The law itself is a savagely repressive piece of legislation. It outlaws four vaguely defined areas: the offences of ‘secession, subversion, organisation and perpetration of terrorist activities, and collusion with a foreign country or with external elements to endanger national security’. It nowhere spells out what constitutes ‘national security’ and a secret ‘Committee for Safeguarding National Security of the Hong Kong Special Administrate Region’ will be responsible for the ‘significant operations for safeguarding national security’. It will be headed by the Chief Executive, who will be ‘advised’ by a National Security Adviser appointed by Beijing. In practice, this body will decide who to arrest and when to do so. Its actions are not subject to judicial review
The law includes many frankly frightening provisions. The most contentious part of the law is likely to be that of ‘collusion’ with ‘a foreign country or an institution, organisation, or individual outside…China’. One of the specified offences is ‘provoking by unlawful means hatred among Hong Kong residents towards the Central People’s Government… which is likely to cause serious consequences’. Under the law, there is no definition of the difference between lawful and unlawful means so any speech or article that criticizes the Chinese government is an offence. As the law makes clear, any of these offences can be committed anywhere in the world and by anyone, Hong Konger or not. Someone in London or elsewhere writing a post that calls for the Uighur people of Xinjiang to have the right to self-determination is committing an offence and should make sure they don’t change flights in Hong Kong.
The judges in trials under the law will be appointed by the Chief Executive, who also has the power to decide that there should be no jury and that the trial should be held in secret. The special police unit set up to enforce the law will have powers to spy on communications without the approval of a judge. It will be complemented by a mainland police unit which will decide whether cases shall be tried in Hong Kong, under Hong Kong law, or be transferred to the mainland and tried in a mainland court under mainland law. This mainland police force enjoys immunity from Hong Kong law:
The acts performed in the course of duty by the Office for Safeguarding National Security of the Central People’s Government in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region and its staff in accordance with this Law shall not be subject to the jurisdiction of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.
Given the litany of opportunities the law provides for human rights abuses, about the only positive thing is that the law does not apply retroactively.
This law was rushed through without any public consultation. The only steps to determine what anyone in Hong Kong thought was that the central government held a closed briefing meeting with 120 pro-Beijing individuals. The meeting made two suggestions. Beijing accepted the idea of increasing the maximum sentence under the law to life imprisonment but rejected the suggestion that the law be made retroactive. Given that 57 % of Hong Kongers opposed the law before they knew the details and, according to a June public opinion poll, only 3 % of the population think that the political situation is ‘satisfactory’ and 71 % are ‘dissatisfied’ with the local government, it is not surprising the public were not consulted.
The demonstration on 1 July was several thousand strong but it was not on the scale of the mass movement of last year. Partly this is a reflection of continuing concerns about the pandemic and partly a reflection of the ways in which the new law and increasingly aggressive policing have made demonstrations an increasingly dangerous activity. Beijing and the local government hope that the passage of the new law will end the cycle of protests and usher in a period of calm and obedience. They are likely to be disappointed. The best that they can hope for is the same kind of sullen resentment that followed the defeat of the 2014 Umbrellas Movement. More likely, there will continue to be protests and demonstrations, albeit on a smaller scale than last year.
Organising under the new law
Demonstrations, however, are not the only forms of resistance available. While the struggle against the law showed that the new unions are not yet strong enough to play a decisive political role, there are plenty of opportunities for them to build their membership and organization in the coming months. There will, unquestionably, be a ramping up of repression against people who were active in the movement. Besides establishing their credentials on economic issues, the unions can certainly play a role in defending those of their members who are victimised by employers or the government for their role in the democracy movement.
The other major focus of resistance will be the elections for the Legislative Council, scheduled for September. The government has a dilemma of whether to allow these to go ahead or not. If they cancel or postpone the vote, they will reignite mass opposition but if they allow it to go ahead, they face the danger of a very heavy defeat. If they allow the elections to take place, they will probably use various legal measures, including the new law, to try to prevent well-known democrats from standing for office. Again, this will certainly provoke increased opposition. In those circumstances, it is very important that the democratic parties stick together and, if their leaders are disqualified, unite behind other candidates. A vigorous campaign and a victory in these elections, like the one last year in the local elections, will provide a platform from which the wider battle can be relaunched.
Here in the UK, the government has improved the terms for settlement it is offering to British National Overseas (BNO) passport holders, but it is still far from giving the secure refuge some of them will likely want. The Chinese government has threatened to retaliate, and it is important that there is no undercover deal abandoning these people in return for trade concessions. More seriously, although it has granted political asylum to Simon Cheng, a British consular employee in Hong Kong who was arrested and tortured on a business trip to the mainland last year, it has said nothing about the thousands of young activists who are not entitled to BNO passports but who rightly fear that they face imprisonment if they stay in Hong Kong. There have been more than 9,000 arrests in the last 12 months and many others must fear they will suffer the same fate under the ‘white terror’. An offer of political asylum for anyone who fears arrest is one of the few concrete steps that the UK can take to help.
Beijing, and Carrie Lam, have clearly won a victory in forcing through this law. They will use the opportunity to step up repression with arrests and jailings. They aim to crush any sign of resistance and with it the desire for a democratic Hong Kong. It will be hard to resist their claim that order reigns in Hong Kong, but we should remember Rosa Luxemburg’s last article, written the day before her murder in January 1919:
‘Order reigns in Berlin!’ You foolish lackeys! Your ‘order’ is built on sand. Tomorrow the revolution will ‘rise up again, clashing its weapons,’ and to your horror it will proclaim with trumpets blazing: I was, I am, I shall be!