What’s in Beijing’s Mystery Security Law Will Be a Giant Tell about Hong Kong’s Future

Sense of Foreboding in Hong Kong. Beijing’s black-box approach doesn’t bode well for local freedoms.

By Chris Oliver, Hong Kong, former business editor at SCMP. For WOLF STREET:

Hongkongers woke earlier this week to a timeline for a new national security law written in Beijing that sets out a handful of days before the legislation is passed. The troubling thing is that few know what’s actually inside the new law.

The controversial bill – widely regarded as already fixed in stone – is expected to be completed during the three-day session of the National People’s Congress Standing Committee which gets underway on Sunday, according to local newspaper reports citing mainland sources. One theory is that the bill will be passed on Tuesday, June 30, the eve of the 23rd anniversary of the handover that ended 156 years of British colonial rule. When the law will be enacted is not known, but sometime during either July or August looks likely (photo by Chris Oliver).

If the new law is passed next week as expected, it would mark about a month since its unveiling in late May – a blistering pace for a national law, especially one affecting Hong Kong, a city known for its low crime rate and social stability.

Hongkongers can be forgiven for feeling a sense of foreboding, thanks to the Kafkaesque manner in which the new law is taking shape. Few in the city have seen a copy of the bill drafted in Beijing, not even Hong Kong’s leader Carrie Lam, or the Secretary for Justice Teresa Cheng, although both have urged the city’s 7.45 million residents to support it.

In the five weeks since Beijing’s announcement, Ms Lam and her fellow cabinet members have been scrambling to spin the proposed law in a positive light, saying it will help to restore stability after a year of political unrest. Large outdoor billboards with messages of support for the proposed law have also popped up around the city.

In spite of the PR campaign, Beijing looks set to keep the full contents of the bill under wraps until it has passed. One mainland legal scholar says the lack of consultation could mean that Beijing is running afoul of its own legal code that requires the government to seek public input on important legislation.

Another risk: Steamrolling the new law without consultation could derail Beijing’s attempts to bolster a sense of national pride among Hong Kong residents.

“Without this [national security law] being seen and soliciting comment, especially among dissenting voices, you are going to have difficulty implementing the law. You are going to lack credibility,” Bing Ling, associate director, Centre for Asian and Pacific Law, Law School of University of Sydney told RTHK.

Beijing’s push for the national security law comes roughly a year after Hong Kong was rocked by mass demonstrations against a proposed extradition treaty that would have allowed the exchange of suspected criminals with the mainland (none exists currently). The legislation, put forward by Hong Kong’s administration, was eventually withdrawn.

Notwithstanding, the national security law is moving ahead at a turbo-charged clip, even as questions about its contents linger. Underscoring the degree of secrecy, Hong Kong-based delegates to China’s upper law-making body were reportedly able to see a hard copy earlier this week, but had to hand it back, presumably before they could take photos with their smartphones.

The new law will define crimes involving secession and subversion. One section warns against collusion with foreign or external forces to endanger national security, according to a Xinhua news report. This could make it a crime if, say, local politicians or labor leaders were to meet with visiting counterparts in Hong Kong, or while traveling abroad.

Question marks also remain over procedures and administration. These include whether Hong Kong courts will handle the prosecutions, what judges will be deemed qualified to preside over the cases and how will the local police force (or mainland security agents) investigate the crimes? (For a summary of the law and its impacts visit the NPC Observer)

Legal scholars say Beijing’s black-box approach doesn’t bode well for local freedoms, as existing Hong Kong law already has provisions covering rioting, assault, and grievous bodily harm.

Here is my interview of Marc Faber, of “The Gloom, Boom & Doom Report,” where he shares his outlook for the Hong Kong economy and global markets.

“If there is something missing in the law that’s going to be filled next week, it has to be a prohibition on certain peaceful acts,” said Carole Peterson, professor of law and graduate chair, Matsunaga Institute for Peace and Conflict Resolution at the University of Hawaii.

One possible outcome, she says, is that advocacy of Hong Kong independence will no longer be protected under freedom of speech, even though multilateral treaties overseen by the UN protect these rights as long as the activities in support of self determination are peaceful.

Another change could affect upcoming elections in the autumn. Individuals who don’t support the national security law once it’s enacted could be barred from running as candidates for the Legislative Council in September, according to one rumor.

Others believe the new law will ultimately diminish the right to protest, leaving Hong Kong with little to differentiate itself from other mainland cities.

Fears that the new law could dole out harsh punishments for illegal gatherings, even retroactively, could explain the relatively muted response from democratic groups in recent weeks. Since the bill was announced there have been no large scale protests across the city, although some of that can be explained by social distancing restrictions related to the coronavirus crisis. A current ban on public gatherings of more than 50 people is due to expire on July 1.

However, Ronny Tong, an executive councilor, believes that some of the worries about the erosion of freedoms are overblown. Tong says Beijing is eager to tamp down some of the violent street protests over the past 12 months, but adds that mainland authorities are “more concerned about the call for independence, the call for the liberation of the Hong Kong people – and the waving of the US flag” (photo by Chris Oliver):

Hong Kong’s leader Ms Lam has also sought to assure locals that the new security law won’t undermine Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy, adding that it will also bolster business confidence in the city.

However, for many western companies, navigating the political reality on the ground can be more complex.

A case in point is HSBC. The London headquartered bank was keeping a low profile until former Hong Kong leader Leung Chun-ying wrote in a Facebook post in early June: “It has been more than a week and HSBC has not yet expressed its position on the national security law.” Leung also called upon senior Hong Kong and mainland officials to consider pulling their accounts at the bank.

HSBC later published a social media post on WeChat, China’s version of Twitter, saying the bank’s Asia-Pacific CEO Peter Wong had added his name to a petition in support of the proposed law.

Senior staff said management at the bank had little choice but to kowtow, describing the less than subtle hints as “white terror,” according to local reports. In voicing its support, HSBC joins a list of the city’s biggest companies and trading houses that have added their backing to the new law.

Overall, in the past decades, things have gone pretty smoothly with China as the sovereign overseeing Hong Kong under the “one country two systems” approach. As we move into the final weekend before the 23 anniversary of the handover, the future seems as precarious and uncertain as it did back in 1997. Just what’s written in that mystery text will be a giant tell about what lies ahead. By Chris Oliver, for WOLF STREET.