HONG KONGERS still do not know exactly what the new national-security law China is imposing on the territory contains. In May China announced it would enact a bill for Hong Kong covering crimes such as subversion and secession, without referring to the city’s legislature. Passed by China’s rubber-stamp parliament in Beijing on June 30th, and promulgated by an order from China’s president, Xi Jinping, its text was not immediately made public, though an outline was released ten days earlier. But already the law is having profound consequences both for Hong Kong’s internal politics and its international relations.
Joshua Wong, a leading activist, and his young colleagues from Demosisto, a small pro-democracy party, announced it was disbanding. Mr Wong promised on Facebook to keep up his advocacy work as an individual: “I will continue to defend my home—Hong Kong—until they silence, obliterate me from this piece of land.” His apocalyptic tone captured the fears of other anti-China protesters. It is not yet known precisely what crimes are covered, nor what penalties they will command. Many expect some offences will attract life sentences. But advocating independence for Hong Kong is certainly now proscribed. Two small groups that have campaigned for it also dissolved themselves.
Internationally, the law has drawn condemnation from Britain, the former colonial power, and many Western countries, who regard it as a breach of China’s promise to honour Hong Kong’s autonomy under ”one country, two systems”. The American government has warned that in response it will remove Hong Kong’s special trading status and treat it as indistinguishable from the rest of China. Already, it has suspended the preferential treatment Hong Kong received in terms of exempting American companies from having to apply for export licences that apply to sales to mainland China. “Given Beijing now treats Hong Kong as ‘one country, one system’, so must we,” declared Mike Pompeo, America’s secretary of state.
The law was rushed through just ahead of July 1st, the anniversary of the handover of Hong Kong from Britain to China in 1997, under the promise of a transitional 50 years during which Hong Kong’s way of life and political freedoms would be conserved. The anniversary is an annual occasion both for official celebrations and for big anti-government protests, most recently last year, when demonstrators broke into Hong Kong’s legislature.
The point of the new law is clearly to deter the kind of unrest that has roiled Hong Kong since then. Hong Kong has been plastered with billboards hailing the legislation, though even senior officials in the city have yet to see it. The official description stresses that the bill will comply with “important principles of the rule of law” and international human-rights legislation. But it will take precedence should a conflict arise between the new law and existing ones. The legislature in Beijing will be able to overrule any verdict in Hong Kong courts. There may be little need for that: Hong Kong’s pliant government will decide which judges can handle national-security cases.
Hong Kong’s police will investigate such crimes. But, in a “tiny” number of important cases, central-government agencies will be allowed to step in. Hong Kong’s chief executive will head a new national-security commission, with one seat reserved for a central-government “adviser”. A new body will be set up in Hong Kong for mainland spooks to “collect and analyse national-security intelligence”. That is likely to mean they will name targets, even if arrests will be made by a new branch of the local police that will focus on national security.
A senior adviser in Hong Kong to the central government, Lau Siu-kai, says the aim is to “kill a few chickens to frighten the monkeys”—to deter people with a few high-profile sentencings rather than carry out sweeping arrests. That is just how the party likes to crush dissent on the mainland. The first test of the scare tactics will be how many people dare to protest against the new law. Even before the bill was passed, the police had turned down an application for a demonstration on July 1st. Whatever happens on the streets, however, “one country, one system” creeps ever closer.■