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China presses ahead with Hong Kong security law designed to curtail political freedoms

Jun 21. 2020
Photo credit:PxHere
Photo credit:PxHere
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By The Washington Post · Anna Fifield, Gerry Shih, Shibani Mahtani · WORLD, ASIA-PACIFIC 

China's ruling Communist Party looks set to ratify a new national security law for Hong Kong by the end of this month, giving it the power to install a new police agency in the city to prosecute political crimes and to override its judicial system.

After releasing details of the new law over the weekend, the National People's Congress Standing Committee has scheduled another session on an unusually quick timetable, beginning another three-day meeting on June 28.

Tam Yiu-chung, Hong Kong's sole delegate on the Standing Committee, told local media that "it's not surprising that they would want another meeting to complete this task sooner."

The draft law, which runs to 66 articles, confirms the international community's worst fears about Beijing's rapid encroachment onto Hong Kong, which is supposed to enjoy a measure of autonomy for 50 years under the handover agreement signed by Britain and China in 1997.

Lawyers, human rights activists and many Western governments have expressed concern that the vague and broad provisions of the law would give the Beijing-backed authorities new legal tools to target activities like the protests that erupted in Hong Kong a year ago. Those protests started as demonstrations against an extradition bill but morphed into a broad pro-democracy movement that surprised and alarmed Beijing. 

They have also voiced concern that the new law will allow mainland Chinese security agencies to operate in Hong Kong, despite the "one country, two systems" framework agreed at the handover.

Similar national security laws in mainland China have been invoked by the state in recent years to sentence dissidents including labor organizers, peasants resisting land grabs, bloggers and lawyers. 

In Macao, a Chinese territory adjacent to Hong Kong where similar laws have been in place since 2009, public displays of dissent are extremely rare, and politically sensitive protests, including vigils marking the 1989 massacre of students at Tiananmen Square, are banned. 

Beijing did not release the text of the "Law on Safeguarding National Security in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region," instead publishing an outline through the official Xinhua News Agency.

The outline said the law would declare that the central government in Beijing bears the "ultimate responsibility" for the national security affairs of Hong Kong, and that it would cover secession, subversion of state power, terrorism, and colluding with foreign forces.

The new law would establish a Commission for Safeguarding National Security, which will bear the "primary responsibility" for protecting Hong Kong's security and will answer to the central government. 

The chief executive of Hong Kong, a position that has increasingly come under Beijing's control and is currently filled by Carrie Lam, will chair the commission. In a development viewed with alarm both inside and outside Hong Kong, she will have the power to appoint judges to hear national security cases.

The commission will also have a national security adviser, to be appointed by the central government, according to the NPC Observer blog.

Under the law, new police and prosecution departments will established to investigate and to enforce the new statutes.

The media of the Chinese state urged people to back the law.

"If we want Hong Kong to have long-lasting peace and security, we should support the law without worrying," the People's Daily, the mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party, wrote in a commentary Sunday. 

"If we want 'one country, two systems' to be sustainable and stable, we should support rather than oppose it," it wrote, calling the legislation a "touchstone" for Hong Kong.

But pro-democracy lawmakers and legal analysts were alarmed by the broad nature of the law. 

The Hong Kong Bar Association said it was "deeply concerned" about the details published to date and called on Beijing to release the law so lawyers could properly analyze its provisions.

Antony Dapiran, a Hong Kong-based lawyer and author, said he was "struck by how deeply it intervenes in the government and legal system, creating a whole new government body and departments."

The details as released, he said, undermine any notion of an independent judiciary in the city and separation of powers. Having an entire infrastructure to apply the new legislation in Hong Kong also undermines reassurances from officials that the national security laws will only be used against a "very small minority" in the city, he said.

During the protests of 2019, Beijing repeatedly accused the demonstrations of being fomented by the "black hands" of the United States who want to encourage Hong Kong to secede from China. 

The party's media repeated that message Sunday.

"Radical forces in Hong Kong and their main supporter, the U.S., will continue stirring up trouble for some time. But the draft law on national security for Hong Kong stands firm on morality and justice," wrote the Global Times, a hawkish tabloid that often espouses the foreign policy views of the party.

"Most Hongkongers will understand the goodwill of the central government. Those fighting against the law will be bound to find themselves ever more isolated. They are fighting with no chance of victory," it continued.

The national security law - and the future of Hong Kong - has become a central point of friction between the United States and China, with U.S. lawmakers and the Trump administration in recent weeks threatening sanctions if Beijing were to follow through. 

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo Friday reiterated that the administration would make good on its threat to strip Hong Kong of its special trading status, effectively treating its people and its companies the same as mainland Chinese, if Beijing encroached further on the city's independence.

"When you ask, will Hong Kong be treated as any other Chinese city, it will be to the extent that the Chinese choose to treat it that way," Pompeo said in a video address to the Copenhagen Democracy Summit Friday.

"President Trump has made very, very clear to the extent that the Chinese Communist Party treats Hong Kong as it does Shenzhen and Shanghai, we will treat them the same," he said.

The Group of Seven countries, including Britain, Germany and Japan, called on China this week to drop the new national security law. 

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said that if the law were to pass, his government would open a pathway to citizenship for almost 3 million Hong Kong people eligible for British National (Overseas) passports, a legacy of colonial rule. Taiwan, a self-ruled democracy that China claims as its territory, has said it will set up an office to help Hong Kong people fleeing to the island to escape increasing repression.

In the eyes of China's leaders, Hong Kong is an unruly city where anti-government sentiment must be stamped out at all costs. Most protesters, though, have not sought independence from China but rather demanded the preservation of their freedoms and the right to directly elect their political leaders without interference from Beijing.

Much of the public anger during the early months of the protests - sparked by plans to send criminal suspects for trial in mainland China's opaque court system - was also targeted toward the Hong Kong leadership and the use of force by its police, rather than toward Beijing. 



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