COVID-19 as a Threat to Hong Kong’s Jurisdictional Independence

The global pandemic has left a footprint on everyone’s life, challenging the concept of normality. However, some places on the map were shaken to their core, but not (only) due to the health-related concerns posed by the menacing virus. Hong Kong perfectly manages to sustain the COVID threat: as of today, only four Hong Kong residents had lost their lives to COVID-19. This is undoubtedly devastating, yet the number pales in comparison with the statistics from most countries affected by the disease, demonstrating the efficiency and timeliness of the region’s preventive measures. So, what is eating Hong Kong then? Tragically, the COVID pandemic handed the keys to the question of Hong Kong’s sovereignty over to mainland China, allowing China’s National People’s Congress (NPC) to enforce a set of laws concerning national security, which would help the central government assert authority over the disputed region. While in the past two decades residents of Hong Kong were able to engage in protest activities to stand up for their rights, this option is currently off the table due to the strict quarantine regulations, disabling the population from resisting the authoritarian move as before.

Evidently, mainland China has never been fond of having a devolved city of freedom with extensive civil liberties just around the corner, as it hinders the agenda of the Communist Party (CPC). Even after the formal end of the British rule in 1997 and reversion to Chinese sovereignty, Hong Kong did not go off the path to democratization, with residents continuously pushing the government to introduce direct elections for executive positions which are purposefully kept under the control of the CPC. Yet, for over 20 years, the mainland government has not ceased attempting to restrict the freedoms of the special region, under the excuse of helping to ensure safety through both legislative and structural means.

We all recall last year’s brutal protests against the extradition law, sparked by the murder of Poon Hiu-wing in Taiwan. Although claimed to have benevolent intentions of protecting the human rights of the accused, the Fugitive Offenders Ordinance amendment (a.k.a. the 2019 Hong Kong extradition bill) would have given the mainland authorities extensive influence in the field of criminal justice. The extradition law caused a strong wave of public outrage, as the Hong Kong population acutely sensed that the bill would open a door to further power abuse by the mainland government. Solely due to the protests, the plan did not turn out successfully, and the bill proposal was officially withdrawn in October 2019. However, the newly introduced legislation poses a much higher threat to Hong Kong’s sovereignty.

The national security laws were unanimously approved at the closing of the 13th Congress on May, 28. Aimed to protect and prevent “secession, subversion, terrorism and foreign interference” in Hong Kong, the content of the new legislation links back to the Art. 23 of Hong Kong’s Basic Law, which required the regional government to enact the dubious threat-preventive laws in 2003. Fortunately, the massive protests of 2003, with half a million people flooding the streets of the city, forced the authorities to postpone dealing with the issue. Now, seventeen years later, the NPC finally received a perfect chance to impose the controversial rules over Hong Kong without spilling blood (well, we will see about that). So far, the new legislation outlines the following changes:

  • Requiring the city authorities to prevent actions and activities which threaten China’s national security;
  • Banishing foreign actors and organizations from intervening in/meddling with Hong Kong’s and China’s domestic affairs;
  • Requiring the three branches of Hong Kong’s government (judicial, legislative, and executive) to stop any anti-governmental activities;
  • Establishing an office of the Ministry of State Security (read: the Chinese intelligence agency) in the region;
  • Granting the NPC full authority to legislate over national security in Hong Kong;
  • Requiring the city authorities to report on the progress of prevention measures to the mainland government;

We can see the ruthless and overpowering nature of the reforms, as they reinforce a clear subordinate relationship between the region of Hong Kong and the mainland government. More importantly, however, the clause regarding anti-governmental actions would most likely be used to penalize those who have previously taken part in protests or opposed China’s rule in any way or form, ceasing the freedom of speech. Additionally, the new regulations could potentially lead to the extension of the “Great Firewall” to Hong Kong as well, further silencing its residents. Another outcome of forcing the region to play by the MSS’s rules is cutting down the ties with foreign countries. With around 80% of Hong Kong’s exports heading outside China, this could result in a decline in the city’s economy. For instance, the USA, one of Hong Kong’s main economic partners, will have to revise the trading policies in case the new laws are adopted, as the US-Hong Kong Policy Act only remains active under the condition of Hong Kong preserving autonomy from mainland China in all aspects but foreign politics and military power. Thus, the new legislature not only puts civil rights and freedoms in danger but also hurts the financial prosperity of the region.

Is there a peaceful solution or any solution at all? Sadly, it does not appear so. Despite the proposal being rather illegitimate, as, according to the Hong Kong Basic Law, the region is in charge of legislating on local security matters, while the NPC can only enforce international affairs- or military-related laws. Yet, the NPC is likely to enact the security laws on the national level and then implement them through the Annex III clause of the Basic Law, – which is practically a list of mainland laws obligatory for the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. Furthermore, raising an appeal would not make a difference, because legal revision and interpretation of the Basic Law are fully in the hands of the Standing Committee of the NPC. As you might guess, the probability of the Committee ruling in favor of Hong Kong is as low as Joe Biden’s chances of becoming the next US President.

Historically, the Hong Kong population has used mass protests as a tool for resistance against the predatory attempts of mainland China to jeopardize the region’s sovereignty. However, not only the quarantine regulations prohibit public gatherings of more than 8 people at a time, but also the police have been ordered to brutally suppress the emerging unrest, which was the case in the first two days following the announcement about the national security new comings. Thus, the pandemic untimely forced Hong Kong residents to remain at homes with their hands tight, watching the situation unravel, sadly, not in their favor. The laws are expected to be fully enacted in September; hopefully, by then the anti-COVID measures will be removed, and people of Hong Kong will be able to manifest their disagreement with Beijing’s policies, not just online.

References:

  1. “China Approves Plan To Impose National Security Laws On Hong Kong”. Ft.Com, 2020, https://www.ft.com/content/16be5051-bf0a-4676-beb7-b781973bbff5. Accessed 30 May 2020.
  2. “HK Police Clamp Down On Anthem Law Protests”. Asia Times, 2020, https://asiatimes.com/2020/05/hk-police-clamp-down-on-anthem-law-protests/. Accessed 1 June 2020.
  3. “Hong Kong (HKG) Exports, Imports, And Trade Partners”. Oec.World, 2020, https://oec.world/en/profile/country/hkg/. Accessed 2 June 2020.
  4. “What Trump’S Announcement On Hong Kong Could Mean”. Lawfare, 2020, https://www.lawfareblog.com/what-trumps-announcement-hong-kong-could-mean. Accessed 2 June 2020.
  5. Davidson, Helen, and Lily Kuo. “Hong Kong’S Security Laws: What Are They And Why Are They So Controversial?”. The Guardian, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/may/21/hong-kongs-security-laws-what-are-they-and-why-are-they-so-controversial. Accessed 1 June 2020.
  6. Li, Fion. 2019, “Everything You Need to Know About the Extradition Bill Rocking Hong Kong”. Washington Post, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/everything-you-need-to-know-about-the-extradition-bill-rocking-hong-kong/2019/06/11/12a7907c-8c26-11e9-b6f4-033356502dce_story.html.  Accessed 1 June 2020.
  7. Solomon, Justin. “Hong Kong Extradition Bill Officially Withdrawn”. ABC News, 2019, https://abcnews.go.com/International/hong-kong-extradition-bill-officially-withdrawn/story?id=66464962. Accessed 1 June 2020.
  8. Statement Of Hong Kong Bar Association On Proposal Of National People’S Congress To Enact National Security Law In Hong Kong. 2020, https://www.hkba.org/sites/default/files/20200525%20-%20Proposal%20of%20National%20People%27s%20Congress%20to%20enact%20National%20Security%20Law%20in%20Hong%20Kong%20%28E%29.pdf. Accessed 29 May 2020.

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