The details of the bill go far beyond what was advanced in 2003. In addition to criminalizing “treason, secession, sedition (and) subversion” against the central government, it will also allow the organs of Chinese national security to operate in the city “to fulfill the relevant obligations to safeguard national security in accordance with the law.”
To be adopted by the AFN later this month and promulgated in Hong Kong soon after, the law will have drastic effects on whole swathes of Hong Kong society, the talkative and provocative political sphere of the city to the media. , education and international affairs.
Hong Kong has always prided itself on respecting the rule of law, with an independent judiciary and civil liberties far beyond what is allowed to cross the border into mainland China. The type of arbitrary punishment, secret detention and naked political prosecution commonly practiced on the continent is almost unknown in the city.
These rights are enshrined in the Basic Law – the de facto constitution of the city – and guaranteed (in theory) by an agreement between China and the United Kingdom when Hong Kong was transferred to Chinese rule in 1997. Hong Kong, unlike China, is also a party to international treaties guaranteeing various civil liberties.
The new law calls all of that into question. By criminalizing such a wide range of ill-defined acts, this could give the authorities some leeway to pursue the city’s opposition as they see fit.
Allowing China’s security apparatus to operate in the city also raises the specter of extralegal persecution. Dissidents and activists in China are often missing by authorities or threatened with arrest following sensitive events, and many journalists and lawyers are dragged to “have tea” with the security services, during which they receive barely veiled threats about the potential consequences of their work.
Speaking at a press conference convened by opposition lawmakers on Friday, Democratic Party lawmaker Helena Wong said even local government “will not be able to regulate what agents do in Hong Kong “.
Colleague Claudia Mo told CNN the news was proof that Beijing “will do anything to curb Hong Kong at all costs”.
“It is clear that Beijing no longer cares what people think,” she added.
Implementing the law in Hong Kong could also turn out to be a nightmare for the city’s courts – which operate separately from the Chinese legal system and without the political pressures on the continent’s judges.
This does not mean, however, that the law risks being overturned. The NPC is the final court of appeal in Hong Kong and can issue an “interpretation” of any constitutional question, essentially rewriting the Basic Law on the fly.
But the confusion and uncertainty that the new rules may create, and a possible protracted fight in court, could be a major blow to the city’s reputation for upholding the rule of law, which has long been considered vital. for Hong Kong’s position as an international. financial and commercial center.
Unlike the extradition bill that sparked the unrest last year, the scope and effects of the anti-sedition law could be broad and society-wide. We can expect a major chilling effect on the media and the city’s political spheres – groups of journalists have long warned of growing self-censorship as pressure from Beijing increases and newspapers and channels were under the control of the Chinese owners.
The fate of the city’s major international media is unclear. At present, foreign journalists are free to work in Hong Kong without being bothered by the type of visa and other restrictions imposed on their colleagues in China, but before the new law, there were already indications that this was happening. finished. New controls on reporting in Hong Kong could see many media organizations moving out of the city, traditionally a reporting base in the wider Asia region.
A crackdown on the city’s legislature, where pro-democracy lawmakers hold around a third of the seats, could also result. In recent years, legislators have been expelled from the body and some candidates have been prevented from running for political reasons. The new law could give Hong Kong authorities a broader mandate to remove obstructive legislators from office or even prosecute them for blocking key laws, especially for reasons of national security.
The effects of the proposed change will also be felt outside of the city. U.S. senators are due to publish an assessment under the Hong Kong Democracy and Human Rights Act (HKDA) on whether the city remains sufficiently autonomous from China to justify its special trade status. It is difficult to see how Beijing will bypass the Hong Kong parliament and legislate on its behalf will not shape this decision.
Beijing can count on the fact that the coronavirus pandemic has weakened the ability and determination of the international community to put pressure on Hong Kong – the United Kingdom in particular, newly outside the European Union, depends on the increased trade with China to boost its declining economy.
When the time comes, while restrictions against coronaviruses are still in place in Hong Kong, which is only in control of its domestic epidemic, could mean that people are less willing to participate in mass protests than last year.