A Hong Kong activist holds his phone while waiting to pay respects to mark the one year anniversary of a man who fell to his death after hanging a protest banner against the now-withdrawn extradition bill on the scaffolding outside a shopping mall, in Hong Kong on June 15, 2020. Photo: AFP/Anthony Wallace

SINGAPORE – When Hong Kong authorities attempted to push through amendments to the city’s extradition laws last year, more than a million protesters took to the streets of the Chinese-ruled financial hub to oppose changes that would have allowed criminal suspects to be tried in the mainland’s courts.

While the widely-opposed rendition bill was ultimately withdrawn, critics say newly proposed national security legislation will effectively bring the mainland’s legal system to Hong Kong, with China’s National People’s Congress empowered to write and apply the still pending law without the approval of the territory’s legislature.

Though Beijing has yet to confirm the bill’s relevant clauses, officials have indicated that those in breach of the law, which will punish secession, subversion, terrorism and foreign interference in the city’s affairs, could be extradited to the mainland for trial, just as the earlier, now shelved proposal controversially sought.

Many see the precedent set by the central government using exemptions in Hong Kong’s Basic Law, the territory’s de facto constitution, to impose the new legislation as an inflection point that could spell the end of the “one country, two systems” framework enshrined in the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration that guarantees the city’s high degree of autonomy.

“This national security legislation shows that the Communist Party has lost its patience and confidence in ‘one country, two systems’, as well as the Hong Kong people and our administration,” Civic Party opposition lawmaker Tanya Chan told Asia Times. “This is a warning and a reminder to Hong Kong people about who’s the boss.”

It isn’t immediately clear whether the Beijing-imposed legislation will reignite the sustained, sometimes violent mass protest movement that gripped Hong Kong throughout the latter half of 2019, particularly amid concerns that harsher penalties will be used to punish deemed as illegal assemblies under the new law.

Pro-democracy protesters shout slogans and wave flags as they gather in a shopping mall in Hong Kong on June 16, 2020. Photo: AFP/Anthony Wallace

While the momentum of anti-government protests has slowed in recent months due to the Covid-19 pandemic, with smaller turnouts reported at assemblies that have gone ahead without police permits, calls for the territory’s independence have become a more prominent rallying cry for black-clad democracy activists.

Reflecting public frustrations over the mass protests’ failure to win political concessions, defiant chants of “Hong Kong Independence, the only way out!” echoed through the streets of the semi-autonomous financial hub at protests held in late May and early June, acts that Beijing’s new national security legislation explicitly aim to “to prevent, stop and punish.”

Though it isn’t clear when the contentious law will enter force, state media has reported that the standing committee of the National People’s Congress tabled a draft of the security bill on June 18 at the start of a three-day meeting of the legislature, which analysts see as indicative of intentions to fast-track the tough new regulations.

Hong Kong and mainland officials claim the proposed law will strengthen, not undermine, the territory’s “one country, two systems” governance formula and insist that the new legislation will only target a small number of “troublemakers” that threaten national security and leave key rights and freedoms not available on the mainland intact.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam, the territory’s Beijing-backed leader, has gone as far as labelling opponents of the new law as “enemies of the Hong Kong people”, arguing that the city’s prosperity and stability are at risk from a “terrorist threat.” She has accused Hong Kong independence advocates of “colluding with foreign forces” to undermine security.

Hong Kong’s sole delegate to the country’s top legislative body, Tam Yiu-chung, suggested on June 17 that those implicated in cases involving foreign interference could be extradited to mainland China for trial under the new law “if Beijing found it necessary that the case should not be handled by Hong Kong courts.”

Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam speaks during a briefing at the Hong Kong SAR office during her visit in Beijing on June 3, 2020. Photo: AFP/Nicolas Asfouri

Authorities in China have, without naming names or offering specifics, accused foreign governments of orchestrating unrest and fanning protest violence, often connecting the dots back to the United States. Pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong, frequently seen waving American flags on the streets, have directly appealed for American intervention. 

The Donald Trump administration initiated a process of eliminating special US treatment for Hong Kong last month after Beijing’s parliament rubber-stamped the proposal to introduce national security laws. Washington’s assertion that Hong Kong should no longer be regarded as autonomous has put US-China ties on an increasingly fraught footing, say analysts.

Group of Seven (G7) nations issued a joint statement on June 17 calling on China to abandon plans to impose the new security regulations, describing Beijing’s imposition of the law as being “not in conformity” with the Basic Law or its obligations under the “legally-binding, UN-registered” Sino-British Joint Declaration.

Beijing has typically pushed back against such foreign criticism and often emphasizes greater respect for its position on key issues. Mainland officials have, meanwhile, sought to ease Hongkongers’ fears over the new law by assuring that it would be used in accordance with common law principles of presumption of innocence and non-retroactivity.

Concerns are rife that the Beijing-authored legislation could be applied retroactively so as to target individuals with more draconian sentences for offenses committed during last year’s debilitating protests. Lam has promised that her government would explain details of the legislation after it is drafted, though she herself conceded to being in the dark as to its specifics.

“Without any details about the provisions in the legislation, and how they are going to be applied, it is not possible and appropriate for me to express my opinion on comments made by my mainland counterparts, because I’m not a party to the lawmaking institution,” Lam said at a press conference on June 17.

Hong Kong’s leader had denied that the local judicial system and powers of final adjudication would be undermined by the new law. The caveat, according to some legal observers’ interpretations, could be that suspects wouldn’t be tried under Hong Kong’s common law legal and procedural system at all, but under that of the mainland.

“They may setup a separate or special court for these kinds of offenses. The Chinese government may also set up a law enforcement agency in Hong Kong. All of this would be unconstitutional and against the Basic Law,” said pro-democracy legislator Chan. “The whole procedure is against the normal practice in Hong Kong.”

The motion to draft a national security law and impose it on Hong Kong is passed with just one NPC delegate against it. Photo: CCTV screen grab

Article 23 of the Basic Law requires Hong Kong to enact its own national security legislation prohibiting acts of “treason, secession, sedition, or subversion.” An attempt to introduce such a law was made in 2003 but ultimately shelved in the face of mass protests. No local administration has tried to introduce a security bill since. 

Beijing’s decision to enforce the law via its own legislature reflects the central government’s aim to stamp out protest-driven unrest and to safeguard the city’s status as an international business hub, say analysts. But rather than restoring stability, signs point to the proposed law serving as a catalyst for local professionals and expatriates to relocate abroad.

“This national security law is going to prove to the world that Hong Kong isn’t free anymore. People are now facing a very different situation. This is the end of ‘one country, two systems’. This is a drastic change that will affect our normal lives. So, emigration is a possible choice,” said Chan.

Political frustration, high housing costs and diminishing economic opportunities have led Hongkongers to seek greener pastures abroad in recent years, a trend that local recruitment consultancies say has accelerated since the beginning of this year with a reported rise in individuals seeking roles overseas in Singapore, the US and Australia.

While anti-government demonstrations are said to have slowed the inflow of expatriates, concerns over new limitations on freedoms enjoyed within the city and Beijing’s hard focus on foreign interference are also seen as deterring top-tier talent from taking up roles in what has long been considered Asia’s premier financial center.

The British government, which maintains that the national security law violates the terms of the 1997 handover agreement, announced this month that it would offer extended visa rights and a “path to citizenship” to British National (Overseas) passport holders in the city if China pursues the security legislation.

An estimated 350,000 people in Hong Kong hold BN(O) passports, while 2.9 million others, almost half the city’s population, are eligible to apply. Immigration consultants and firms that help Hong Kong residents apply for British visas have reported an uptick in inquiries since London’s announcement, which authorities in Beijing harshly condemned.

“The brain drain of our best and brightest is probably the biggest single threat to Hong Kong,” said Richard Harris, chief executive of Port Shelter Investment Management.

“The problem is that because there’s no clear definition of what the national security law is, everybody believes the worst. Hong Kong is and will remain an excellent place to do business, but the loss our best and brightest is going to have a real impact on the economy.”

A man looks at his mobile phone on a hilltop in the Shek Kip Mei district in Hong Kong on August 5, 2018. Photo: AFP/Philip Fong

Taiwan, moreover, announced this week that it would provide humanitarian support, including a basic living allowance, for Hongkongers seeking asylum over fears of political persecution, the result of a directive issued by President Tsai Ing-wen last month soon after the proposed national security law was overwhelmingly approved by China’s legislature.

“Key constituents of Hong Kong’s democratic and resistance movement may conclude that their bet for their future and their children would be somewhere else other than Hong Kong,” said Paul Hong, a professor of global supply chain management and Asian studies at the University of Toledo in the US.

“At a certain point, Hongkongers’ resistance to this new law may be weakened,” he said. “Certainly, this national security law will hasten the outflow out of Hong Kong’s capital and human resources. [This] would mark a new chapter for Hong Kong – a beginning to an end that is not bright at all.”