At the end of last June, a sweeping National Security Law was imposed in Hong Kong which criminalises acts of secession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with foreign forces. The vague definition of these offences and the wide powers contained within the legislation led many to fear that it may be wielded as a tool to silence dissenters and undermine human rights in Hong Kong. Since the law was passed, it has been used to arrest citizens holding pro-independence flags, disqualify a teacher for allegedly ‘promoting Hong Kong independence, and expel pro-democracy legislators from the city’s Legislative Council. However, the most dramatic update came last Wednesday, January 6, as 55 democracy activists and supporters were rounded up in the biggest round of arrest made under the National Security Law.
The arrests came following allegations that those arrested had been involved in the organisation of an unofficial ‘primary’ for pro-democracy candidates ahead of an upcoming election that was later postponed. They were accused of subverting state authority, but various governments and authorities have expressed concern about the legitimate usage of the law. The foreign ministers of Australia, the United States, Britain, and Canada issued a joint statement that claimed that the law was, in fact, “being used to eliminate dissent and opposing political views”, marking a strong and unequivocal condemnation of the law’s usage. It appears to support some of the worst fears of critics, that the National Security Law is no more than a façade for the central Chinese government to silence any opinion that was perceived as challenging their authority. Despite the autonomy of Hong Kong citizens forming one of the bases for Britain handing Hong Kong back over to China, set out in the Sino-British Joint Declaration, the National Security Law seems to hint that a democratic Hong Kong was not an idea that could be entertained and has acted in breach of it.
So what does this mean for the future of Hong Kong citizens? Is it foolish to still hold onto the terms agreed in the handover of Hong Kong, and hope that a high degree of autonomy would continue to be maintained in the city? Or has the latest round of arrest sent a clear message that democracy would not form a foreseeable part of the future?
It appears that the latter is the trajectory that the city is veering more towards. After all, the so-called crime that the 55 arrested activists were accused of embodies the acts of a functional democracy; there are going to be opposing parties in such a political system, with different ideas, and it is the citizen’s right to vote for those they feel would best represent them. When some citizens of Hong Kong felt that their needs were not being voiced by any of the candidates in a forthcoming election, they tried to find a way for their opinions to be heard. Yet instead of being listened to, they were rounded up and punished under the National Security Law. It would be difficult to interpret this message as an optimistic promise for the democracy that these citizens yearned for.
Furthermore, the Capitol riots that swept the United States on the same day does no favours for the prospect of having democracy in Hong Kong, after demonstrating how ugly this ideology can get. The shock of what happened ricocheted around the world and China will not be immune from feeling the impacts of it. If anything, it adds further fuel to the fire as China can now point to what happened as an example of the exact scenario that the National Security Law is preventing. It also weakens criticisms against the crackdown on pro-democracy activists, as many from the same group of people are now also condemning the rioters that took over Capitol Hill in their bid for representation which Carrie Lam, the chief executive of Hong Kong, has called a double standard. As China argues, what is it that makes the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong one to support, and the ‘pro-democracy’ riots in the US one to condemn? In the eyes of China, the two movements are one and the same; democracy is democracy, no matter where in the world or what the context is in which it is being pushed for. Therefore, they would argue that it’s crucial to keep on implementing the National Security Law.
Given how the National Security Law has been used to date, and the condemnation around what happened in the US, it seems increasingly unlikely that democracy in Hong Kong is a tangible prospect in the near future. Does this mean that all hope is lost? I dare not suggest an answer to that, but I will keep my fingers crossed that some resolution can one day be reached between the polarised community in Hong Kong and China.