Between Security and Freedom – Hong Kong’s National Security Law

Antigovernment protesters, Hong Kong, August 2019

“Someone must have been telling lies about Joseph K., for without having done anything wrong he was arrested one fine morning.” – in The Trial, Franz Kafta wrote about a bureaucratic trial whose obscure contours are so incomprehensible and ambiguous, that its main character is overwhelmed by a feeling of latent surprise and total helplessness. A similar Kafkaesque absurdity stormed the democratic movement of Hong Kong on June 30, 2020, when the National Security Law (NSL) was promulgated by the Chinese Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, instead of being done by the Legislative Council of Hong Kong. The goal of the decision announced by Beijing was to restore order and security on this special administrative region (SAR), in addition to maintaining sovereignty in the territory, after months of pro-democracy protests that in some instances resorted to violence and property destruction. This former British colony (1841 to 1997) represents until today – alongside with Taiwan, Japan and South Korea -, the cultural and political border in the Pacific between the West and the People’s Republic of China (PRC). However, despite the PRC consistently mentioning in official communications the importance of the fundamental principle “one country, two systems” of the Sino-British Joint Declaration, the NSL represents an authoritarian drift that respects neither the Declaration nor the Basic Law of the SAR (its mini Constitution). This law arises in the midst of a pandemic and economic insecurity context, in which restoring order and security are easily invoked as the necessary solution.

Despite some recent loss of relevance in Hong Kong, one of the most important financial centers in the world, due to the development of others big industrial centers in China, it remains an important Beijing gateway to the world economy. For decades, its inhabitants were able to express peacefully their political ideas, while the SAR benefited of some political, judicial and media independence; however, its chief executive was (and still is) nominated by Beijing. The peaceful protests in favor of a political system closer to universal suffrage grew in March 2019, when the chief executive Carrie Lam proposed a law that would allow extradition to the continent. It was then that the local police response became more violent, as well as the protests; chaos that would culminate with the storming of the Legislative Council of Hong Kong (LEGCO) by protesters, originating its biggest political crisis since its independence from Great Britain. Adding to the tension, the local election on 24 November 2019 registered a record of participation and represented a significant victory of the pro-democracy movement. In response to the development of the situation and to foreign interference, NSL stipulated as crimes:  secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces. At the same time, Beijing created the National Security Agency, a new committee headed by the Hong Kong executive leader that ensures the execution of LSN. This agency is not subjected to review by any independent institution or organization and provides for the contribution of a national security adviser to the central government of China. In turn, the central government can also order wiretapping, demand the delivery of travel documents to suspects, fine companies and suspend their licenses. Regarding its effects, the law mainly affected three sectors of the SAR: politics, education and the media.

In politics, its consequences include the prohibition of anti- Beijing demonstrations, such as chants and slogans in favor of Hong Kong’s independence, and the display of pro-independence flags – subversion violations of the law that, at most, result in a life sentence. As an example, in August 2020, at the time of an annual vigil to remember the victims of the Tianmen Square massacre (1989), more than 20 activists were arrested when they violated their ban and to circumvent these prohibitions, some protesters displayed blank placards. Ironically, the NSL also allows, in some cases, the extradition of defendants to the continent, implementing the legislative changes that initially motivated the 2019 protests. Finally, more than 90 people have already been arrested for political reasons – 53 activists and  politicians, for having participated in the organization of a primary election, which they did not know was illegal; 11 were arrested for “helping fugitives”, although outside NSL jurisdiction; for political officials, it has become an obligation to declare that Hong Kong is part of the PRC; the parliamentary elections scheduled for September 2020 were postponed due to the pandemic and, in November 2020, in a measure directly imposed by Beijing, 4 pro-democracy LEGCO members were dismissed for not being sufficiently patriotic, and 1 member of the opposition resigned in solidarity. The Demosisto party, founded on the pro-democracy protests, was also immediately dissolved by its members, since under NSL it became illegal. Some of its famous members, such as Joshua Wong and Agnes Chow, were sentenced to nearly a year in prison for their organization and participation in an illegal demonstration. Nathan Law, another former member of that party, escaped to the UK for fear of retribution, taking advantage of the UK’s special measures to welcome dissidents. Chow had already been arrested in August 2020 for collusion with foreign forces and the widespread implementation of the law led Wong and Law to fear ambiguity in its interpretation and implementation.

In education: in February 2021 it became mandatory to teach NSL, from primary school to university students and teachers. According to the guidelines of the Hong Kong Department of Education, in addition to the obligation to teach crimes subject to punishment, students will also learn etiquette, raising the flag of the PRC and singing their hymn. As part of this measure, Beijing spread an animated video aimed for children, in order to develop their nationalist spirit, guarantee loyalty and a strict appreciation of the law. In addition to the change in the curriculum in schools and universities (focused on the exclusion of liberal studies that encouraged critical thinking), teachers began to be advised to report ‘’dangerous material’’ from other tutors and undue behavior by their students. Finally, books that are not in accordance with the law have been banned from libraries. In media: investigative journalist Choy Yuk-ling was arrested for allegedly having lied to obtain public information to her investigation of bad police practices, namely about police inaction in armed gang attacks against pro-democracy activists. A telephone contact with the authorities was also created so that potential witnesses could report any non-compliance of the law and some restrictive measures of representativeness in the media were introduced, which mainly affect small local media and freelancers. The magnate and owner of several media companies Jimmy Lai, arrested for his “pro-democracy activities” and “collusion with foreign forces”, was denied the right to bail by the Hong Kong Court of Final Appeal (HKCFA).  Defiantly, Lai compared Hong Kong under NSL to Xinjiang and warned that young people in the SAR will be the most affected by the law because they will face a future of authoritarianism and increasing censorship.  

In conclusion, this article highlights 4 controversial questions about NSL: the imperative rule “1 country, 2 systems” is no longer a reality? ; does the attempt to impose a political and ideological view on HK’s education demonstrate the inflexibility of China’s socialist and nationalist system, despite consistently advocating a multilateral perspective in the International Relations? ; the ambiguity in the interpretation of the technical and vague language of the new law camouflages the arbitrariness of its application?; can NSL be considered a tool to silence critics of the Chinese regime? Hong Kong’s future faces therefore a dilemma between security and freedom. The new reality could mean a significant erosion of the Hong Kong Basic Law and a further distancing from Beijing to the principles defended by International Law, having already been condemned by the international community, whose reaction has been limited by China’s growing economic and political influence in the world. For the youth, looking for security in order, this could be another brick in Roger Waters’s (former Pink Floyd) metaphorical wall: as the intolerance to freedom of speech is reinforced, thrives a fear of enjoying the universal right of a more complete individual expression, in loose contact with other cultures, for punishment of the crime of overcoming ideological barriers.

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