On 29th June, Hong Kong was largely still the place it had been for the past 23 years. Despite the apprehensive mood in the city following months of escalating protests and the threat of COVID-19, life continued relatively normally. Many pro-democracy “yellow shops” displayed Lennon Walls and posters critical of the government. In contrast to the Chinese mainland, on university campus discourse openly critical of Beijing spread freely. On 30th June, the gradual erosion of Hong Kong’s freedoms stopped, and instead their ever-weakening foundations began to crumble.. Shopkeepers cleaned up their stores, taking down any material which could be deemed offensive to the government whilst by 5th July a private messaging app called Signal reached the top of the Android store in Hong Kong.
This, after all, was the point of Hong Kong’s new national security law. The law has not been introduced for its content, draconian as it is, but the message it sends and the effect that will have upon Hong Kong. Senior Chinese officials have claimed the law will be used only to deal with those who are a serious threat to peace and stability in Hong Kong. Truthful or not, this is in practise a distraction. The law has already succeeded in its main aim: harnessing fear and intimidation to terrorise Hong Kong’s residentsand silence discussion of what Hong Kong should be. As we hear less of protests in Hong Kong moving forward, it must be remembered that people are no less angry than they were: they are now too scared to speak up.
Beijing hastried to portray the national security law as bringing Hong Kong into line with many democracies, and as the will of the silent majority in allowing the authorities to control increasingly disruptive protests. The truth of the matter is that the law goes far beyond this. It imposes possible life imprisonment on crimes of ‘secession’, ‘subversion’, ‘terrorism’ and ‘collusion’. These crimes sound serious, until you consider that ‘terrorism’ has now been defined to include vandalism, a nod to the Legislative Council incident last year, and ‘subversion’ could even include writing to your MP to ask the UK government to take a tougher stance on Hong Kong. These offences are not even territorially limited to Hong Kong – Article 38 of the law states that the entire law may even apply to non-residents outside of Hong Kong. Beijing is not content with simply silencing the people of Hong Kong: it is now coming for all of us.
The judicial system in Hong Kong has generally been held up as a beacon of independence even as the city’s freedoms have been eroded. Indeed, if this law were to be interpreted by impartial judges and juries then perhaps it would not be the death knell for Hong Kong that it is. Juries might nullify the most egregious uses of the law and judges could pass proportionate sentences. However, never to miss a trick, Beijing has this covered. The Hong Kong Chief Executive will select judges to handle cases and if it is deemed cases contain state secrets, then juries will not be permitted and cases could be held in secret. The law even subverts all previous bail legislation – the presumption of bail being granted has been reversed and there is no time limit on how long suspects can be held. In cases deemed particularly ‘complex’, extradition to the mainland is possible – a stinging rebuke to protesters who thought they had crushed the proposed extradition bill last year. Even if powers to exclude juries are rarely used and life sentences uncommon, these provisions communicate clearly that the ‘innocent until proven guilty’ maxim is dead and that anyone critical of either Beijing or the Hong Kong government should watch their step.
Faced with such a bleak outlook, the response of many people has been to express sympathy with Hong Kongers but call the situation hopeless. They claim that faced with a China more powerful and emboldened than ever, any UK government response is futile and maybe even dangerous. This is too defeatist – while there is little chance of reversing this legislation, the actions of the UK and other like-minded nations can change how Beijing behaves in the future. The loosening of entry restrictions for around 3 million British National Overseas (BNO) passport holders is a good start, but it is not enough. A large proportion of protesters and therefore those most threatened by this legislation were born post-handover so are not eligible for BNO passports. These people have their whole lives ahead of them and are well placed to contribute to the UK – they should also be offered a way out. The UK should negotiate with other Commonwealth countries to ensure that every Hong Konger has a chance to leave if they wish, so that political concerns of excessive immigration can be mitigated. These measures are imperative – they are the only assured way to safeguard the welfare and human rights of Hong Kongers.
As important as these measures are, they only address the symptoms of the problem. Governments must also aim to tackle the root cause – the increasing level of impunity of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) both in treating its own people and others abroad. As this law operates extraterritorially, many acts you wouldn’t blink an eyelid at could be interpreted as illegal – writing this piece, for instance. This could seem hypothetical, if it weren’t for the fact that the UK has an extradition treaty with Hong Kong. Canada and Australia have already suspended their equivalent treaties and it is only right for the UK to do the same. That this law is in effect in Hong Kong is lamentable enough, never mind that those abroad should not be allowed to feel threatened by it. Lastly, firm diplomatic action should be taken to send the message to the CCP that its behaviour is unacceptable. Diplomats should be expelled and visa sanctions implemented against officials involved. Some will suggest this is pointless but it sends a simple message to the CCP – this is the price of your actions. If we continue to trade off our principles in favour of political expediency then we will ultimately get neither.