A Chinese flag displayed on an electronic billboard is reflected on a building in Hong Kong on September 30, 2019, one day before the 70th anniversary of the People's Republic of China. Photo: AFP/Nicolas Asfouri

There have been conflicting reports and comments from Beijing about a proposed national security law tailor-made for Hong Kong, right after China’s parliament rattled the former British colony and international investors with its 11th-hour announcement that it would foist on the city legislation to outlaw secessionism and foreign meddling.

The National People’s Congress, channeling the edict from the top leadership, used the city’s stalled progress in enacting related national security laws on its own as a pretext for its latest overreach.

Most of the consternation now surrounds a clause of the bill that would enable China’s national security agency to set up shop in the special administrative region to discharge its duty of safeguarding national security. The move has raised the specter of mainland agents snatching people deemed to be endangering China’s national security and overstepping Hong Kong’s own law enforcers in extrajudicial operations.

This clause marks an alarming departure from Beijing’s previous pledges to respect Hong Kong’s existing institutions and high degree of autonomy and not to interfere with the running of the city in areas other than defense and foreign affairs.

These guarantees paved the way for Hong Kong’s return from London in 1997 and Beijing’s suite of commitments and special policies aimed at preserving the former colony’s autonomy. Most of what stood as of the handover is codified as the Basic Law, the city’s constitutional document.

All of the constitutional arrangements emphasizing autonomy and no interference from Beijing are more colloquially known as “one country, two systems,” a term coined by Deng Xiaoping. The late Communist Party patriarch assured Hongkongers and the international community on multiple occasions that the deal would not be changed for at least 50 years from 1997.

But just a little over two decades later, it appears that Beijing has decided to nix its pledges and to brusquely bypass Hong Kong’s own legislature to impose a law on the territory.

Hong Kong police fire tear gas near the city’s government headquarters and Legislative Council complex in Admiralty to disperse people protesting against an amendment bill that would allow the surrender of fugitives to mainland China. Photo: Wpcpey/WikiMedia

Another salient fact is that Article 23 of the Basic Law, which will criminalize acts of treason, secession, sedition, and subversion against Beijing, the theft of state secrets as well as foreign meddling, has never been enacted by the city itself since a failed attempt in 2003. The Basic Law also allows Beijing, via the NPC, to add new legislation to a list of national laws applicable to Hong Kong.

The new NPC bill for the city is yet to spell out all the details about which agency will set up a base in the city but it is believed that the Chinese state security ministry will soon dispatch a task force and start preparatory work, once the bill is rubber-stamped by the NPC deputies during the current parliamentary session.

But a senior pro-Beijing commentator has sought to downplay the unease, saying even though mainland agencies may establish a presence in the city, they may not directly enforce the law or give orders to the Hong Kong police.

Lau Siu-kai, former chief the Central Policy Unit of Hong Kong’s government who is also a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, told reporters that he did not think Beijing’s national security agencies would seek to command the local police.

“Hong Kong’s law enforcement agencies follow orders from the chief executive, and it is the top leader of Hong Kong that is accountable to the central government in Beijing,” he said. 

In cases where local politicians and activists are found either colluding with foreign forces or calling for their intervention, actions to be taken against them would depend on the specific legal provisions to be fleshed out by the NPC.

Hong Kong’s former chief secretary for administration Henry Tang also said the new law could make it legal for mainland agents to carry out missions in the city, something they have traditionally not been able to do.

He added that capital flight would be “unlikely” as the new law would make Hong Kong society “more stable” and therefore the majority of residents should have nothing to worry about. He said Beijing would only target foreign political forces making waves in the city and their local accomplices.

Protesters gather outside Hong Kong’s Legislative Council on June 12, 2019, in a bid to stop the second reading of a China extradition bill. Photo: WikiMedia
A protester is seen holding a black flag in Hong Kong on July 1, 2019. Photo: AFP Forum via NirPhoto/ Vernon Yuen

Hong Kong’s past summer of chaos and protests, ignited by the local government’s intransigent bid to ram a China extradition bill through the legislature, saw the most politically charged and violent rallies and clashes between protesters and the police in more than half a century.

Rioting radicals engaging constables in pitched street battles and the police’s increasingly sharp-elbow tactics to quell the unrest led to tear gas and live rounds being fired, though no one was killed as a direct result of these stiff confrontations.

The chaos that erupted in June 2019 convulsed the Asian financial hub, and the protests soon took a fiery turn to challenge Beijing’s authority as Chinese flags were desecrated and Beijing’s liaison office in the city was besieged. The political crisis seethed for more than half a year until the Covid-19 outbreak put it in remission.

The American Chamber of Commerce Hong Kong, which represents more than 1,300 US companies operating in the city, was quick to express its concerns about the new law, stressing that Beijing’s long-arm jurisdiction and encroachment on people’s freedoms will trouble many investors and the 85,000 American citizens living in the city.

In Washington, lawmakers from both sides of the political divide have proposed a Hong Kong Autonomy Act to sanction officials and police officers who violate Beijing’s pledges for the city, and they say support for Hong Kong cuts across party lines.

“In many ways, Hong Kong is the canary in the coal mine for Asia. Beijing’s growing interference could have a chilling effect on other nations struggling for freedom in China’s shadow. This bipartisan legislation will impose strict sanctions on those who undermine Hong Kong’s autonomy or contribute to the erosion of basic freedoms and rights enjoyed by the people of Hong Kong,” said Senator Pat Toomey.

Read more:

Hong Kong’s political temperature rising again