Hong Kong security law: How Beijing is cracking down

In this file photo protesters chant slogans and gesture during a rally against a new national security law in Hong Kong  (AFP)
In this file photo protesters chant slogans and gesture during a rally against a new national security law in Hong Kong (AFP)


City’s government has used new powers to arrest dozens of opposition figures, eject pro-democracy lawmakers and stifle dissent

Hong Kong has become a flashpoint in what some see as an emerging cold war between the US and China. Exhibit A is Beijing’s decision to bypass Hong Kong’s legislature and impose new national-security legislation on the city on July 1 to stamp out a yearlong protest movement.

Hong Kong’s Beijing-backed government moved quickly to make use of those powers to pacify the city, arresting protesters, ejecting four pro-democracy lawmakers from the city’s legislature and rounding up opposition figures. Recently, 53 were arrested in a series of dawn raids on Jan. 6 over allegations of plotting to subvert the city’s government, taking the total of security law arrests to around 100 as of early February.

The U.S. has taken steps to punish Beijing by restricting visas for Chinese officials and declaring that Hong Kong is no longer sufficiently autonomous to merit special treatment on trade in goods such as defense technologies. It also imposed sanctions on some Chinese officials and Hong Kong governing figures including Chief Executive Carrie Lam. Here’s how we got to this point.

What does the mass arrest of Hong Kong opposition politicians on Jan. 6 mean?

Around 1,000 police officers arrested 53 pro-democracy figures in a high-profile operation that involved searching 72 locations across the city on Jan. 6. It was the biggest swoop since the law was imposed.

The allegations center on unofficial primaries held by opposition groups in July for the public to choose the most popular candidates for legislative elections planned for September. More than 600,000 people voted. The pro-democracy camp sought to win more than half of the 70 seats in the city’s legislature and said it would use a majority to block government policy. Many candidates were subsequently disqualified, and officials then postponed the poll for a year, citing the coronavirus situation.

Following the mass arrests, John Lee, the city’s top security official, accused the group of “plotting a vicious scheme" to paralyze the Hong Kong government. Police made the arrests on grounds of alleged subversion, one of the main serious crimes targeted by the national-security law.

Why did China impose a national-security law on Hong Kong?

When Hong Kong’s de facto constitution, the Basic Law, came into effect in 1997, it left some important matters unfinished. One was a provision to grant universal suffrage, which hasn’t been implemented. Another was a pledge to outlaw national-security crimes, which Beijing pushed through over the summer.

Article 23 of the Basic Law obliged Hong Kong to pass the national-security legislation itself. But fierce public opposition derailed previous efforts, including one in 2003 that was abandoned after half a million people took to the streets in protest. Beijing’s plan is a workaround that criminalizes separatist, subversive and terrorist activities in Hong Kong, as well as collusion with foreign powers intervening in the city’s affairs.

What exactly is in the law?

The law gives China’s central government a much stronger hand in policing dissent in Hong Kong.

It criminalizes activities deemed as secessionist, subversive or terrorist and gives Beijing the authority to deploy state security agencies in the city. Hong Kong’s government is required to strengthen oversight and management of schools, civic organizations, media and the internet on matters of national security.

Hong Kong’s chief executive, who is chosen by a committee stacked with pro-Beijing members, will select judges to oversee national-security cases, and a Chinese office in Hong Kong will oversee national-security affairs, with its personnel empowered to gather intelligence and supervise local authorities. That office will handle cases deemed as major security threats, and mainland courts and prosecutors will handle such cases in accordance with Chinese laws.

The law vests China’s legislature with ultimate power to interpret it—overriding local courts on national-security cases. It allows for maximum sentences of life in prison and states that it applies to any person who commits offenses defined by its provisions, even if they are outside Hong Kong and aren’t permanent residents of the territory.

How has Hong Kong put the law to use?

Since the law was implemented, Hong Kong’s government has arrested more than 90 people for alleged violations. They include young protesters for carrying flags and chanting slogans, and prominent opposition leaders such as newspaper publisher Jimmy Lai, who is in jail awaiting trial this year. Authorities have also disqualified pro-democracy legislative candidates, expelled some lawmakers, declared half a dozen overseas dissidents to be fugitives, and begun to purge schools and universities of teachers who supported the opposition. In early February, the city’s education bureau issued a directive that mandates patriotic education in kindergartens, followed by national security lessons starting at elementary level.

Can China impose legislation on Hong Kong?

Beijing asserts that it has the power to do so—and demonstrated that by pushing through the legislation in a speedy and unusually secretive process.

Hong Kong was handed back to China by Britain in 1997 and has enjoyed wide latitude to write and adjudicate its own laws under a formula called “one country, two systems." Article 23 specifically says Hong Kong “shall enact laws on its own" to address national security.

Hong Kong’s Basic Law also offers ways for the mainland to add laws governing the city under certain conditions. Those powers are held by the Standing Committee of China’s National People’s Congress, the legislative body that met twice recently to fast-track the new national-security law.

What does the law mean for Hong Kong’s autonomy and status as a financial center?

Critics said forcing through a national-security law is the most serious in a series of steps in recent years to erode Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy. They warn that eroding freedoms and undermining the city’s autonomy will cost its reputation as a safe base for foreign businesses and banks doing business with China. Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, says the law has brought stability that will help the city pull out of a long recession. In December, she told the audience of The Wall Street Journal’s CEO Council Summit that Hong Kong has promising prospects and that it is an “opportune time" for businesses to invest in the city.

Why are people in Hong Kong worried about the law?

In China, Beijing has used national-security laws to crack down on activists and to press political goals. A former Hong Kong bookseller who sold gossipy titles banned on the mainland was sentenced to 10 years in prison on espionage charges. China also cited espionage when it arrested two Canadian citizens, a researcher and a former diplomat, in detentions that were seen as retaliation for Canada’s arrest of a senior Huawei Technologies Co. executive.

Under the law, Beijing is able to override the city’s jurisdiction in some cases, overrule Hong Kong’s courts in interpreting the law and set up state security staff in the city to help enforce it, all of which have raised concerns about the independence of the city’s judicial system.

Millions of people marched in Hong Kong in 2019 spurred by similar concerns that a now-withdrawn extradition bill would have exposed them to China’s murky legal system.

How has Beijing’s move to introduce the law affected the protests?

China’s announcement has twice brought thousands of Hong Kongers into the streets, but they have been met with a heavy contingent of police empowered by social-distancing rules that penalize large gatherings.

Police have cited restrictions on public gatherings because of the coronavirus pandemic to ban all protests over the past year, contributing to a reduction in street protests. Some spontaneous street protests still occur, including on New Year’s Eve, when hundreds sang “Glory to Hong Kong," a protest anthem, on the city’s waterfront before being dispersed by police.

Why did China force the expulsion of four Hong Kong lawmakers?

Hong Kong removed four legislators in November, just minutes after Beijing passed a resolution empowering local officials to unseat dissenting politicians without going through the courts. The new rule says lawmakers can be removed for supporting independence, endangering national security or refusing to recognize China’s sovereignty over Hong Kong—similar to the crimes outlined in the national-security legislation Beijing imposed on the city over the summer. While Hong Kong officials didn’t explain any violations of those provisions, the lawmakers had been disqualified in July from standing for a new term over a purported lack of loyalty to the city and its institutions. The other 15 lawmakers in the pan-democrat camp said they would resign later in the day.

How is the campaign affecting China’s relations with the U.S.?

The State Department declared that Hong Kong is no longer significantly autonomous from China as a result of the national-security move, a decision that could end the city’s advantageous status and diminish confidence among foreign businesses.

Former President Donald Trump rolled back Hong Kong’s preferential treatment as a separate customs and travel territory, and put sanctions on a number of Hong Kong and Chinese officials.

The Biden administration has maintained staunch U.S. support for pro-democracy demonstrators. The Jan. 6 arrests are “an assault on those bravely advocating for universal rights," Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Twitter. “The Biden-Harris administration will stand with the people of Hong Kong and against Beijing’s crackdown on democracy."

How has the U.K. responded to the new security law?

Britain has provoked Chinese ire by beginning to offer, starting Jan. 31, a route to British citizenship for as many as 5 million Hong Kong residents, or almost 70% of Hong Kong’s population. Those eligible are people who lived under British rule and are entitled to a special British passport that now gives them limited rights to spend time in the U.K., as well as their dependents. Several high-profile figures have exiled themselves in the country to use it as a base for international activism over Hong Kong.

China, in response, said it will not consider the British National (Overseas) passport as a valid travel document, a largely symbolic move that nevertheless further inflames tensions between the two countries.

This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text.

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