After a long period of silence during the Coronavirus epidemic, protests erupted again in Hong Kong. Last weekend, Hongkongers protested against what they called Beijing’s “dictatorship” – this time, a mainland Chinese security law initiative was the subject of their discontent. China has formally approved a plan to impose national security laws on Hong Kong.
Why did the project cause such excitement, and most importantly, why is the US interfering in China’s internal affairs and opposing Beijing’s decisions?
The reasoning behind the security law
The Basic Law, which has been in force in Hong Kong since 1997, implies that the HKSAR region is responsible for domestic affairs and security – and while priority is given to Chinese forces, disagreements arise as to how the law is read.
Hong Kong currently has a Security Bureau, established under the British administration, which includes the main operating security body, the Hong Kong Police Force (including the Hong Kong Auxiliary Police Force, civil servants, and its Marine Region).
The People’s Liberation Army Hong Kong Garrison, which replaced the British garrison in 1997, is officially operating in Hong Kong, and has priority. As a non-sovereign Chinese territory, Hong Kong has never had a military force of its own.
The Hong Kong Garrison includes elements of the People’s Liberation Army Ground Force, PLA Navy, and PLA Air Force; these forces are under the direct control of the Central Military Commission in Beijing and under the administrative control of the adjacent Southern Theater Command.
Previously, the Chinese army in Hong Kong played a rather symbolic role – as a demonstration of the unique power of Beijing under the current principle of “one country – two systems”.
But after the riots of 2019, the Beijing authorities have already thought about revisiting the role of the PLA in the complex region. Taking into account that local law enforcers are not coping with the protest vandalism, Beijing decided to improve the system and add an article to the law to improve the national security system.
According to the innovation, if necessary, the central government will establish security agencies in Hong Kong. In short, this means that China has the potential to have state law enforcement agencies in Hong Kong alongside local ones – not as a symbol, but as a practical instrument.
As a reminder of who really has the power and military in Hong Kong, soldiers began cleaning up the areas hit by the 2019 protests. It was a subtle hint that everyone understood: if the local police were unable to maintain order, central command would do so.
The PLA commander in Hong Kong Chen Daoxiang already declared readiness of army – “Garrison officers and soldiers are determined, confident, and capable of safeguarding national sovereignty and development interests and the long-term prosperity and stability of Hong Kong,”
Will this change the principle of “one country, two systems”?
The Chinese side stresses that not only will national security legislation not abolish, and will likely even strengthen the principle of “one country, two systems”. Hong Kong will achieve more autonomy in the system and retain its own capitalist economy and legal system.
Hong Kong is part of China and as such has constitutional responsibility for national security, yet in terms of national security, it has long been unprotected.
Is it actually legal?
As in the case of the legislative initiative on extradition, the change has provoked strong opposition and protests. Although Beijing’s latest legislative initiative was officially supported by the authorities in Hong Kong, the opposition took to the streets and lawyers began to argue about legislative nuances.
Opponents of the initiative refer to Article 23 of the Basic Law (HKSAR’s constitutional document), according to which Hong Kong must independently pass laws to protect national security.
Supporters, however, recalled that the primary responsibility for ensuring national security rests with the central authorities, so the decision of the HKSAR, the highest authority in China, has a strong legal basis. They refer to article 31 of the Constitution, according to which:
“The state may establish special administrative regions when necessary. The systems to be instituted in special administrative regions shall be prescribed by law enacted by the National People’s Congress in the light of specific conditions. “
Xinhua cites a number of legal experts in Hong Kong who justify the legality of the initiative. Chu Kar-kin, a member of a research association on the Basic Laws of Hong Kong and Macao special administrative regions, refers specifically to the Constitution as the main legal framework and the NPC as the country’s main ruling body.
Chan Man-ki, a lawyer and an NPC deputy from Hong Kong, notes in turn that national security legislation should not be considered an issue falling exclusively within the sphere of autonomy of Hong Kong. The expert also points to article 18 of the Basic Law, according to which:
“In the event that the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress decides to declare a state of war or, by reason of turmoil within the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region which endangers national unity or security and is beyond the control of the government of the Region, decides that the Region is in a state of emergency, the Central People’s Government may issue an order applying the relevant national laws in the Region. “
Thus, lawyers note, although article 23 of the Basic Law empowers Hong Kong to make laws for security, this does not negate the supreme authority of Beijing, which is responsible for public security. In other words, Beijing’s strength is legally higher than Article 23, and the issue becomes relevant in critical situations.
The problem with article 23 is as follows, Xinhua notes: it has become “so stigmatized and demonized in Hong Kong that it is, in fact, very difficult for the HKSAR Legislative Council (LegCo) to fulfill its legal responsibility of enacting relevant laws”.
From a State-wide perspective, article 23, while legitimate, is often used by foreign anti-Chinese forces as a convenient legal loophole. The unfortunate result can be to undermine national security under the guise of “democracy” and “freedoms”.
For example, when “Hong Kongers” shoot the police with archery or cobblestone arrows, the Western press calls it “the struggle for freedom” and the establishment of order by the police “dictatorship and pressure”. It’s worth remembering how in 2019, protesters destroyed subway stations, shops, blocked the transport system and business, started a fire in the streets and even threatened with terrorist attacks. Is this “freedom”?
There is another gap in Hong Kong law that lawyers often talk about. If the laws of the region include, for example, the crimes of treason, sedition, espionage and theft of state secrets, then we are not talking about such crimes as secession and subversion. For example, slogans about the secession of Hong Kong from China are, in fact, open calls for separatism, but they cannot be punished or prevented.
Thus, Article 23, which could really play a positive role for the peculiar development of the region, is used only in a negative context, to undermine China’s internal unity.
Everything else will remain the same
China’s initiative will not curtail freedom of speech, press and travel – but will prevent vandalism and attacks.
Also, according to China, Hong Kong’s status as a separate customs territory is recognized by the World Trade Organization and guaranteed by the Basic Law, so changes in the economic system will not affect it. On the contrary, Beijing believes that investors’ confidence in the region will only grow stronger if business is not constantly under threat of blockage and destabilization.
However, even despite legal and political explanations from the Chinese side, the US has taken the news by bayonet and is encouraging protests in Hong Kong. In Hong Kong, pro-Western, and especially pro-American, forces have pursued an active information policy in recent years, fuelling separatism and destabilization and turning anti-Chinese riot leaders into media heroes (such as Joshua Wang, whose parents are immigrants in general), and impersonating cosmopolitan youth for the opinion of all Hong Kongers. As many noted, British flags were raised during the protests, and no clear constructive demands were made by the demonstrators for 2014 or 2019.
Even now, when China solves its domestic problems legally, the US is trying to condemn its solutions.
In an official statement of the US, Mike Pompeo says that the proposal of Beijing “impose national security legislation on Hong Kong”.
Moreover, in his statement, Pompeo threatens to change the assessment of the very principle of “one country, two systems”.
“The United States strongly urges Beijing to reconsider its disastrous proposal, abide by its international obligations, and respect Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy, democratic institutions, and civil liberties, which are key to preserving its special status under U.S. law. Any decision impinging on Hong Kong’s autonomy and freedoms as guaranteed under the Sino-British Joint Declaration and the Basic Law would inevitably impact our assessment of One Country, Two Systems and the status of the territory.”
A group of 200 senior politicians from around the world issued a joint statement criticizing China’s plan, while the leaders of Great Britain, Australia and Canada joined the US in their criticism.
The US intervention has become a regular feature of political life in Hong Kong. In 2019, on November 27, US President Donald Trump even signed the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act of 2019. According to the law on “democracy and human rights”, the US administration is obliged to publish an annual report on the situation in the autonomous region and, if necessary, impose sanctions on those responsible for “human rights violations”. Depending on the outcome, Washington may threaten Hong Kong to modify trade agreements. At the same time, according to the text of the law, even the police actions to deter protesters can be interpreted as “human rights violations”.
But it should be noted that the West is introducing double standards, having its own solid system of legal regulation of security issues. The Americans who criticize Beijing have one of the most complex and multifaceted legal systems of national security, in which articles can be interpreted in the way that is currently needed. America has its own national security law, signed by former President Harry Truman on July 26, 1947, and improved after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Britain had the Official Secrets Act of 1911 to combat espionage, then an updated Official Secrets Act of 1989.
Thus, by introducing security law, China acts within its own territory, trying to close loopholes in laws for foreign intervention and attempts at destabilization.