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“Whether” Report, Hong Kong. July 1, 2020

By Bill Stork

There is a chill in the air this summer in Hong Kong. ‘Whether’ Hong Kong can or will proceed and function as once it had is the subject of some intense debate, scrutiny, pressure and concern.

On 1 July, the new Beijing-legislated National Security Law came into effect in Hong Kong, symbolically coincident with the Hong Kong holiday to commemorate the ‘handover’ of Hong Kong to China by the British 27 years ago. Unlike the ‘extradition bill’ of a year ago that shocked the populace because of such little advance preparation for its introduction, this time there has been widespread publicity about the coming law, with television public service announcements (that the new security legislation will ‘help preserve the ‘one country, two systems’ format) to billboards and placards everywhere around Hong Kong.

However, the details about the legislation have been obscured, the only advance information that it would deal with four items: acts of secession, subversion, terrorism, and ‘collusion with foreign and external forces to jeopardise national security.’ The day before the legislation was to be promulgated, HK’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam started her press conference by stating that she would take no questions about the impending legislation. At 11 pm on 30 June, Hong Kong adopted the Beijing-imposed national security law, adding it in Annex 3 of Hong Kong’s mini-constitution The Basic Law.

Among the provisions of the legislation, offenders could be subject to life imprisonment (chilling!), expulsion for non-residents, and fines for misbehaving companies. In an earlier article I mentioned how Beijing had worked recently to erode HK’s autonomy. While Article 18 of The Basic Law proscribed Beijing setting up any agencies in Hong Kong, over the years three had taken root here, with the first being the Xinhua News Agency, which served as the de facto Beijing office for decades. This was followed by an agency to help facilitate trade and tourism arrangements. Lastly came the Beijing Liaison Office, and it was that office that recently announced that Article 18 no longer applied, and that Beijing could set up new agencies ‘to help guide the Hong Kong government in enforcing the new national security law.’ Added to this was information that Beijing would send ‘agents’ to assist the Hong Kong Police in their efforts in setting up a new branch, just to deal with national security aspects. Also somewhat alarming was the release of a short video showing the Hong Kong garrison of the PLA exercising, in Hong Kong, live-fire shooting practice for the first time.

One of the tenets of The Basic Law was the provision that HK would enjoy judicial independence, maintaining the British-format of the common law. The new legislation suggests that this is somewhat modified, as it stipulates that the Chief Executive can appoint the judge(s) to hear cases under this new security law. This has already drawn a good deal of comment.

Yes, this new legislation went into effect on 1 July, a date that has always in the past seen an annual protest march organized by the HK Human Rights Front. This year the police refused to give a ‘letter of no objection,’ citing Covid-19 health concerns and past violent disturbances. [Of note: there had been only one local virus infection in the past five weeks and physical distancing restrictions have been officially relaxed.]

Two million protesters march from Government Center to Victoria Park 1 July 2019

That ‘the new national security law turned out to be tougher than expected, with a set of rules to be overseen and enforced by a new mainland agency with the power of the state behind it to take over some cases and operate in the city without falling under local jurisdiction,’ the activists made plans for civil disobedience and to hold the banned march anyway. Meanwhile, CE Carrie Lam promised that the new legislation would allow her government to face the post-COVID economic rebuilding that would also feature changes to the education system to help the youth better understand how to be a good Chinese citizen. She also promised efforts to restore the affection of HK’s alienated young adults who are unable to afford housing in this most-expensive city nor find post-university employment.

Some other events of interest, without comment:

The young localist activists resign from their party and close it, saying that they will stop political activism. This includes the well-known Joshua Wong, who had met in September with Congressional leader Nancy Pelosi and had also met with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to get their support for his democratic movement in HK, a move which Beijing denounced as a ‘conspiracy.’ This has led to that fourth provision in the new national security law.

A huge number of HongKongers have now deleted their social mobility accounts.

Provisions for implementing the new national security law include wiretapping surveillance and other forms of intercepting communications, covert surveillance, ability to investigate premises and vehicles and electronic devices, and power to demand surrender of travel documents.

The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of HK is holding a 7 July panel discussion (not virtual!) on the topic ‘What the National Security Law Means for Press Freedom.’

Hours before the law was passed, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the United States would stop exporting defense equipment to Hong Kong, as well as restrict the city’s import of dual-use technologies. Pompeo argued that Beijing’s implementation of the national security law made it impossible for Washington to “distinguish between the export of controlled items to Hong Kong or to mainland China.” Beijing vehemently protested.

The pan-democrats who after their near 100% success in the District Council elections were hoping for equal success in the upcoming September Legislative Council (LegCo) elections, are now worried that the new legislation will cause the government not to allow their candidacies.

Thousands of activists protested the new security law in the face of a huge police presence on July 1. Over 300 were arrested, including a 15-year-old girl holding ‘Hong Kong independence’ materials. Water cannon was used to disperse crowds in WanChai district and tear gas was used in Causeway Bay.

The purple banner reads: “This is a police warning. You are displaying flags or banners, chanting slogans, or conducting yourselves with an intent such as secession or subversion, which may constitute offenses under the HKSAR [Hong Kong Special Administrative Region] National Security Law. You may be arrested and prosecuted.”

All images sourced from SCMP

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