Riot police fire tear gas to clear protesters at a rally against a new national security law in Hong Kong on July 1, 2020, the 23rd anniversary of the city's handover from Britain to China. Photo: Dale de la Rey / AFP

The past few weeks in Hong Kong have been dreadful, to say the least, especially after the controversial national-security law came into full force on July 1.

The once-semi-autonomous territory came to grips with a new wave of arrests under the new law, drafted by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPCSC), the top state organ in China. Writers and activists scrubbed their presence online – with some fleeing Hong Kong in fear of state-sponsored persecution – and a cloistered “secret police” agency at the top level of a luxurious hotel.

The last British governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten, once said: “Now Hong Kong people are to run Hong Kong; that is the promise and that is the unshakable destiny.” But for a lot of civil-society figures and organizations, the national-security law is a direct assault on civil liberties and democratic rights enshrined in the Basic Law, the mini-constitution of Hong Kong.

In no uncertain terms, the Basic Law stipulates in Article 18 and Article 23 that national-security legislation cannot be unilaterally authorized by Beijing. Bypassing the local legislature and given Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s lack of knowledge of the details of law and its enforcement mechanisms violate the city’s and international legal instruments.

The law prohibits subversion, secession, terrorism and foreign collusion that puts China’s national security at risk. To understand the controversial provisions better, I found four vague elements that a local lawmaker helped expand on.

Designed to quash democracy

“The NPCSC wrote these provisions into the national-security law to prohibit judicial review against this law,” said Alvin Yeung, a member of the Hong Kong Legislative Council and Civic Party leader. “This is not real legal language by common-law standards in Hong Kong, just brute force.”

Only after it was passed did Beijing reveal the complete text of the law and imposed it by fiat, which Yeung and several other lawmakers spoke out against when the draft bill was announced in May, especially concerning the fate of critics holding office in the legislature or judges in the courts.

Commenting on the risk of getting blacklisted from or imprisoned in China, Yeung said he doesn’t “see the point of self-censoring because it is very much futile. What Beijing perceives as acceptable and what is not is never consistent, the red line changes at their will.”

The editorial board of the state-owned Global Times wrote in favor of the law to put an end to a supposed “malicious scheme to pull Hong Kong from China into the US’ power circle and turn the city into a fulcrum for the US to contain China.” These views are synonymous with the central government’s pivotal goal to weed out foreign interference and “violent” protests.

However, US President Donald Trump issued an Executive Order on Hong Kong Normalization on July 14 confirming that the Hong Kong Police Force has in fact been trained under the International Law Enforcement Academy (ILEA), established under then-US president Bill Clinton in 1995 to “combat international drug trafficking, criminality, and terrorism through strengthened international cooperation.”

Squeezing opposition parties

Rather than an issue of economic stability, the Chinese government knows all too well that Hong Kong’s problems are plainly political. In the “subversion” provision of the law, anyone found offending it could be sentenced to life imprisonment for “interfering, disrupting or undermining” the government of Hong Kong or the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

This far-reaching language doesn’t stop there. Committing a crime of terrorism is fundamentally a catch-all term for anything risking public health and security.

The deputy director of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, Zhang Xiaoming, went as far as likening the national-security law to “anti-virus software” for the pan-democratic camp. This explains the death of Demosisto, a pro-democracy party spearheaded by activists Joshua Wong and Nathan Law, the latter of whom has fled Hong Kong to an undisclosed third country.

By weaponizing a historically skewed definition of “terrorism” and villainizing a bevy of dissidents, the final nail in the coffin is to dissolve the pan-democratic parties overall. As the Hong Kong Legislative Council dives into elections this September in the midst of brewing tensions, the largely vague national-security provisions could prevent the opposition from holding office at all.

In Article 35, anyone convicted of crimes under the law is forbidden from running for lawmaking positions. To make matters even more serious, that ban also applies to court judges.

Long reach of the law alarming

One chilling revelation, among others, is the PRC claiming to have the right to enforce the law against acts committed in foreign jurisdictions.

According to Articles 36 to 38, any non-permanent resident of Hong Kong residing outside the territory can fall victim to the notoriously opaque court systems of the PRC.

China Daily made a “whataboutist” argument on the far-reaching scope of the United States’ national-security policing. “US prosecutors have increasingly used extraterritorial jurisdiction to levy charges against foreigners accused of terrorism or organized-crime-related offenses,” the article says.

According to Yeung, claims to extraterritorial jurisdiction are not only uncommon but underline the likelihood of disputes arising with foreign governments. He added that “several states have signed extradition agreements with China, it is possible China will demand extradition from these states.”

Yeung pointed to one major characteristic of the law that lends itself the power to impose unilaterally: ambiguity. The non-definitions of what constitutes a crime is symptomatic of Beijing’s authoritarian rule over activists and ethnic minorities.

Arresting hundreds of protesters and setting up a Chinese spy agency are cause for alarm for many watching the “one country, two systems” policy stripped away almost overnight.

In Yeung’s words, it’s too early to tell whether the law really is Damocles’ sword hanging over the city. “This is only the beginning. It is foreseeable the crackdown will only become more cruel and unforgiving,” he said.

Fatima Qureshi

Fatima Qureshi is a Pakistani-Turkish journalist born and raised in Hong Kong. Currently based in Malaysia, she is a communications program officer for Musawah, a global Muslim women's movement. She has written and produced stories on current international affairs and under-reported social issues with a sharp focus on feminism, power politics and immigration.