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THE POLITICAL RISK OF HONG KONG’S NEW NATIONAL SECURITY LAW

  • A new national security law was implemented in Hong Kong on 30 June 2020 by Chinese lawmakers, bypassing Hong Kong’s own legislature.

  • The new legislation stipulates punitive measures to be taken against those found to have engaged in crimes of ‘terrorism’, ‘secession’, ‘subversion’ and ‘collusion’. It applies equally to residents, non-residents and those outside of Hong Kong.

  • Whilst the new law lessens the risk of mass civil unrest, foreign travellers in Hong Kong are now subject to heightened political risk due to the broad judicial remit provided by the legislation.

  • Hong Kong’s status as a global centre for commerce is under threat as the new legislation undermines perceptions that the city is sufficiently autonomous from Beijing.

  • China’s controversial move highlights a unilaterally inclined and risk tolerant Chinese leadership, which bears substantial geopolitical implications.

Hong Kong cropped and resized

Situation

The decision to implement a new national security law in Hong Kong by lawmakers in mainland China has upended local legislature, miring Hong Kong in substantial political risk. On 27 May, the National People’s Congress (NPC) voted 2,878 to 1 with 6 abstentions to authorise the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPCSC) to craft national security legislation for the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR). Details of the law were made public hours after its unilateral ratification by the NPCSC on 30 June, bypassing the collaborative pretensions of Hong Kong’s ‘one-country, two-systems’ constitutional principle.

The law is positioned under Annex III of Hong Kong’s Basic Law, the de-facto constitution of Hong Kong as adopted by the NPC in 1990. The legislation applies equally to residents, non-residents and those outside of Hong Kong. Comprised of 66 articles, the legislation stipulates punitive measures to be taken against those found to have engaged in crimes of ‘terrorism’, ‘secession’, ‘subversion’ and ‘collusion’. Those charged can be punished to life in China’s penal system, with a minimum sentence of three years for an ‘active participant’. Ambiguous language in combination with vague terminology equips Chinese authorities with a broad judicial remit with which to pursue those deemed to be in contention with the new status quo. The law also allows for the establishment of a new security agency in Hong Kong to enforce the legislation.

Introduction of the new national security law represents a culmination in the Chinese state’s response to the continuous mass unrest in Hong Kong over the last year following the announcement of an extradition bill. The controversial bill was to allow Beijing to extradite Hong Kong’s criminals to China for prosecution, with public outcry deriving from the perceived arbitrary character of China’s judicial process. Demonstrations initially began in specific opposition to the bill and compelled Hong Kong’s leader, Chief Executive Carrie Lam, to withdraw it, though the protests eventually evolved into a broader discontentment with the extent of China’s oversight in Hong Kong. The year-long unrest has resulted in Hong Kong becoming a highly polarised political environment, creating circumstances where efforts of consensus-building and compromise are conduced to intransigence.

Implications

Travel to Hong Kong by non-Chinese nationals has become laden with political risk due to the new national security law. The legislation states that foreigners in Hong Kong can be deported should they violate the law, even in the absence of prosecution. Of relevance is how the law also applies to those who are outside Hong Kong, likely implying that the public denouncement of the Chinese state or expressing support for Hong Kongese dissenters by a foreign national could result in refused entry or even criminal charges upon entering Hong Kong. Additionally, the crime of ‘collusion’ is specific to a dissenter cooperating with a foreign country or external elements, creating risk of arrest for foreign visitors when interacting with demonstrators.

The possibility of mass civil unrest in Hong Kong has decreased since the introduction of the new law due to the now harsh penalties for openly protesting, with substantial arrests having occurred over the last month consistent with the new legislation. Groups that deemed themselves too subversive hurriedly disbanded following the security law’s implementation, though ex-members of such networks have stated a commitment to continued participation in protests as individuals and to establishing underground channels for articulating discontent. Dissenting attitudes amongst the Hong Kongese will therefore remain widespread, providing the requisite for spontaneous nationwide protests to materialise, albeit at lower risk.

Commercial opportunity has come under considerable political risk in Hong Kong due to the new national security law. Hong Kong’s status as an international centre for business and finance derived from being demarcated as a separate economic entity from China in US policy, an attribution enjoyed conditional on being sufficiently autonomous from Beijing. In response to the new national security legislature, the US State Department has declared that henceforth it is unable to consider this requisite autonomy satisfied. On 14 July, US President Donald Trump signed the Hong Kong Autonomy Act into law, which mandates for the imposition of economic sanctions against persons and entities considered to be eroding Hong Kong’s autonomy, in addition to the financial institutions supplying them with capital. This coincided with President Trump’s signing of Executive Order 13936, revoking any special privileges and economic treatment formerly granted to Hong Kong.

China’s decision to impose the new national security law bears substantial geopolitical implications. The move signifies a unilaterally inclined Chinese leadership with an especially high tolerance for risk as per willingness to take on additional international condemnation amidst complications posed by the COVID-19 crisis. Such posturing is of greatest relevance to Taiwan, whose leaders have recurrently rejected invitations into a system akin to Hong Kong’s ‘one-country, two-systems’ model under the notion of the ‘one China policy’. As Beijing has evidenced a capacity for reinterpreting the restrictions it places on its own unilateralism, formerly established precedents in cross-strait relations may no longer hold. A critical aspect regarding Taiwan’s geopolitical future will be the extent of the West’s continued support to Hong Kong in the immediate months, which Beijing will likely use as indicative of future Western opposition to similar unilateral action.