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China’s decision to impose new national security laws in Hong Kong has brought protesters advocating greater democracy back onto the city’s streets, after a lull forced by the coronavirus pandemic. It also has cast more doubt on whether Hong Kong still has the “high degree of autonomy” promised before the British handed their colony back to Chinese control in 1997, and whether the independence of the city’s judiciary can be maintained. The stakes are high: If the global financial hub is no longer seen as distinct from the mainland, it could suffer a major economic blow.
1. What laws are we talking about?
The national security law would be aimed at acts of treason, secession, sedition and subversion. Officials in Beijing have said the measure would also seek to counter terrorism and foreign interference in Hong Kong. Separately, Hong Kong lawmakers are considering legislation that would punish anyone who shows disrespect for China’s national anthem — something that is already a crime in the mainland.
2. Why is Beijing doing this?
Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, or Basic Law, requires the local legislature to reform colonial-era security laws, still referring to “Her Majesty,” with measures to protect the Chinese state. The first attempt to do so, in 2003, failed in the face of massive demonstrations.
3. Why now?
The China-backed Hong Kong government faces another potential summer of unrest, after months of often violent protests last year that ground to a halt due to the pandemic but have since resumed. Police and other officials have repeatedly warned of the risk of terrorism. In addition, the anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing, a flash point for tensions in Hong Kong, is traditionally marked on June 4 with a huge vigil that could see more protests. There’s a key election coming in September for the citywide Legislative Council, with Beijing bracing for a repeat of the surprise, landslide victory by the pro-democracy opposition camp in last year’s district council elections. And China has seen its relationship with the U.S. worsen dramatically, with tensions rising on fronts from Hong Kong to trade and allegations regarding the initial handling of the coronavirus.
4. How would it be enacted and enforced?
Under the plan laid out May 22, legislators in Beijing would “formulate relevant laws … to safeguard national security,” which would be included in an annex to Hong Kong’s Basic Law. The Hong Kong government then “promulgates and implements them.” In addition, the national legislators would work with “related parties” to “strengthen the building of special institutions, enforcement mechanisms and law enforcement forces” so as to “ensure effective implementation,” according to Wang Chen, vice chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, China’s rubber-stamp legislature.
5. What does that mean?
Xie Feng, commissioner of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Hong Kong, said the city’s legal system won’t change and the judiciary would remain independent. According to the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong, however, the laws “would be passed without scrutiny by the local legislature, would allow mainland agencies to operate in the city as needed, and require the Hong Kong government to establish new institutions to safeguard national security.”
6. What’s the reaction been?
Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam, who is supported by Beijing, has defended the plan, insisting the city’s freedoms would be preserved. She has dismissed concerns about the stability of “one country, two systems,” the principle by which China has governed the city since its return from British rule. But some 200 political figures from 23 countries, including Hong Kong’s last colonial governor, Chris Patten, jointly criticized Beijing’s plan. U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo called it a “disastrous proposal.” Pompeo had delayed an annual report on the city’s status, the basis for its special trade privileges. The criticism was bipartisan, with likely Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden saying America should urge the world to condemn China on Hong Kong.
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