China’s unprecedented plans to impose sweeping anti-sedition laws on Hong Kong have prompted mass protests and international condemnation.
Beijing says the legislation is meant to stop subversion, terrorism and secessionism as well as foreign interference that could endanger national security. In the aftermath of the increasingly violent mass protests last year, China’s government has said such laws are urgently needed to plug Hong Kong’s “national security loophole”. The legislation will be written in Beijing and directly added into Hong Kong’s de facto constitution, known as the basic law.
Critics say the move signals Beijing’s intention to place Hong Kong firmly under its control and sounds the death knell for the city’s existing rights and freedoms.
What freedoms are under threat in Hong Kong?
For years, Hongkongers have used the phrase “cooking a frog in tepid water” to describe the gradual erosion of freedoms and rights in their city under Chinese rule since its handover from the British in 1997. The new security laws represent a dramatic and swift escalation of that process.
Residents, legal experts and human rights advocates are worried about regulations used in mainland China to suppress and punish dissent will be applied in Hong Kong, where authorities ultimately answer to Beijing.
Specifically, residents are worried about their right to free speech and assembly, an important channel of political expression for Hongkongers who do not get to elect their government’s highest office.
“Given how broadly defined the terms of ‘national security’ and ‘subversion’ are, every protest that criticises the Hong Kong and Chinese government can be construed as violating the law, thus banned and their participants arrested,” said Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asioa division.
More fundamentally, the basis of Hong Kong’s legal system, its independent judiciary, and rule of law are under threat.
What could the Chinese authorities to do under the laws?
One of the most concerning element of the laws, according to draft legislation released last week, is that they enable China’s national security organs to establish “agencies” in Hong Kong “when needed”.
This could come in the form of security forces, secret police, intelligence agencies, or a separate court established to hear related cases. One Hong Kong delegate to the National People’s Congress (NPC), China’s largely rubber-stamp parliament, proposed a “national security court” in which only Chinese judges would hear such cases.
In mainland China, national security agents regularly harass and intimidate dissidents, journalists and residents who voice criticism against their government or otherwise are accused of undermining public order by “picking quarrels”. The national security laws and stationing of mainland agents in Hong Kong raise questions over how involved these agents will be in the efforts to “prevent, stop and punish” security threats.
By including the reference to foreign interference in the legislation, the laws could allow Chinese authorities to ban international NGOs and human rights groups that operate out of Hong Kong. NGOs critical of the Chinese government have already been feeling pressure from Beijing over the years. The measure could also target pro-democracy activists who raise support and awareness internationally and work with groups overseas.
What comes next?
The standing committee of the NPC will now draft the new security laws. Bills usually go through three readings by the committee before approval but can be adopted after just two sessions if a consensus is reached. The committee, which meets every two months, is scheduled to next meet in late June but special sessions can be called.
According to the NPC observer blog, if no special sessions are called and normal procedure is followed the laws could be passed by the committee in August. But Chinese officials have called for the laws to be enacted “without delay” while state media have said legislation has already been mostly drafted and could be signed into a law “as early as the coming weeks”.
After it is approved in the NPC, the legislation will be listed in Hong Kong’s basic law.
The delay leaves an opening for protesters to take to the streets again. Lunchtime protests have been called for Friday and another possible rally at the end of the month. Online some demonstrators have called for people to stage a “100 day war” before the laws are enacted.
What don’t we know yet?
It is unclear who will enforce the laws. Under Hong Kong’s de facto constitution, Chinese laws should not apply to the city and its own legislature should enact legislation in the common law tradition. Its laws should be enforced by the city’s own law enforcement agencies and be administered by local courts.
A summary of the decision approved by the NPC on Thursday included slight changes to the previous version, to ban “activities” as well as “acts” that endanger national security. Some legal experts believe the language expands the scope of the legislation to include organisations as well as individuals and others say it may be a way to target more general activities like attending an unauthorised rally.