Vision 2047: How China’s New National Security Law Could Ignite Additional Friction in Hong Kong

In May, the Chinese National People’s Congress (NPC) convened in Beijing and moved to draft a new national security law that would ban sedition, secession, and subversion in Hong Kong. In addition, the central government is planning to evoke a seldom-used legislative method that would allow the law to bypass Hong Kong’s own legislature. The law was formally passed on June 30th, 2020, one day before the 23rd anniversary of the island’s return to Beijing. The last time Beijing attempted to pass similar national security legislation was 17 years ago in 2003, and the effort was met with massive protests. Hong Kong has been the epicenter of a persistent stream of social unrest over the past several years, including the Occupy Central movement, the 2014 Umbrella Movement, and the ongoing pro-democracy protests since 2019. Given the persistent social unrest that has rattled the island-city over the past year, this new move by Beijing could serve to reignite social tensions and Hong Kong could once again descend into a new wave of chaos.

Even before the new law was proposed and passed, Beijing had been arresting and jailing dissidents, human rights lawyers, and other activists for national security crimes. Among the more prominent figures to been arrested and detained include Uyghur economist Ilham Tohti and human rights activist Liu Xiaobo, who passed away in 2017 as a result of cancer while under house arrest. Other individuals arrested under national security charges include journalists and human rights lawyers. Non-mainland Chinese citizens have also been imprisoned for alleged national security crimes, including pro-democracy activists in Taiwan. China has also arrested foreign nationals for allegedly attempting to provide sensitive national intelligence to foreign forces. In December of 2019, two Canadian citizens were arrested in China and charged with espionage. The new security regulations that Beijing will impose could result in a similar wave of arrests and detentions in Hong Kong, which could serve to reignite the tensions that have rattled the island-city for over a year.

The NPC’s decision was met with rather predictable reactions by both pro-democracy advocates and lawmakers as well as pro-establishment politicians. Pro-democracy lawmakers in Hong Kong have expressed concern that the law would ultimately end the “one country, two systems” status quo that was agreed to by Beijing and London in the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1997, under which Hong Kong would keep its own separate legal system for 50 years. Lawmaker Dennis Kwok asserted that the “[Chinese Communist Party is] completely destroying Hong Kong.” The US State Department issued a statement warning that any efforts to enact legislation that is contrary to the will of the people of Hong Kong would be met with international condemnation. In contrast, pro-Beijing lawmakers and the Chinese foreign ministry have asserted that the national security law is critical in ensuring the long-term stability of the region and also serves the fundamental interests of the Chinese people. The proposed law has once again aroused mass demonstrations as thousands of Hong Kong residents have rallied to protest Beijing’s move. On May 24th, protesters gathered at the city center shouting anti-government slogans and waving banners. Police have arrested hundreds of people and fired tear gas to disperse the crowds. China has officially banned large gatherings in recent months, which had led to a temporary cessation of mass demonstrations until very recently. The protesters were also concerned about a potential move by the central government to send in its own law enforcement agencies to Hong Kong to help enforce the new law. In addition, the law would allow Hong Kong’s top official to hand-pick judges to hear national security cases, potentially compromising the island’s independent judiciary system. There have been several arrests since the law passed, and a number of prominent political leaders in Hong Kong have either stepped down from their positions or have left the territory.

There has also been considerable international concern over the national security law, with a number of foreign politicians signing a statement drafted by former Hong Kong governor Christopher Patten and former British foreign secretary Malcolm Rifkind. The statement expressed strong condemnation of Beijing’s actions, calling them a “flagrant breach” of the 1997 Sino-British Joint Declaration. The signatories include both US Congressmen and British members of Parliament. On May 27th, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo testified before Congress that given current developments, Hong Kong no longer has a high degree of autonomy from Beijing and thus should no longer receive special treatment under US law. If this policy decision is implemented, it could have significant long-term ramifications for US-Hong Kong as well as US-China relations.

The security law has also raised concerns in Hong Kong’s business community. The potential impact of foreign retribution in response to the law could severely damage Hong Kong’s financial markets, which are already reeling since the outbreak of the coronavirus. Despite these concerns, Chinese authorities have asserted that businesses will not be adversely affected. If Beijing does indeed move to enact the legislation, China will most likely be met with international sanctions. Given the large-scale economic stagnation caused by the coronavirus, these potential sanctions would deal yet another heavy blow to the Chinese economy. In addition, these measures could also adversely affect the global economy and ultimately have detrimental effects on worldwide economic recovery. Beijing’s decision to enact national security legislation at this juncture may not necessarily be the most prudent approach considering all the internal turmoil that has transpired over the past several months.

In the long term, the national security legislation threatens to intensify anti-government protests in Hong Kong as Beijing’s actions could serve to exacerbate an already tense situation in the island-city. Although these moves by Beijing can be viewed as part of a long-term approach to gradually assert full control over Hong Kong’s internal politics, the CCP’s decision to enact additional legislation shortly after the withdraw of the extradition bill last year displays a sense of impatience on the part of the central government, a rather unusual move by a political elite that has long been known for its patient and strategic approach to significant domestic and international issues. On the other hand, the PRC has certainly become much more assertive in both the domestic and international arenas since Xi Jinping took office in 2013. China’s new approach to foreign affairs can be seen in  “wolf warrior” diplomats as well as Beijing’s efforts to assert its territorial claims in the South China Sea over the past several years. Thus, it can be argued that Beijing’s policy decisions regarding Hong Kong are reflective of the increasingly assertive approach by the Xi administration in terms of both international and domestic affairs.

Nevertheless, this legislation appears to be rather poorly timed given the plethora of internal and external pressures currently confronting the Chinese Communist Party. The coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated already-strained US-China relations and has also drawn international criticism for Beijing’s handling of the virus outbreak despite Chinese state media’s claims otherwise. In that regard, this decision by Beijing can also be a way for the CCP to divert attention from the international backlash it has received for China’s handling of the pandemic. Ultimately, Beijing’s efforts to exert greater control over Hong Kong could trigger additional domestic and international backlash, which would serve to further damage China’s already embattled political elite and once again stoke tensions in a city that has been rattled by persistent instability over the past several years. Although there appear to be clear motivating factors for the Chinese Communist Party to enact the national security law, this legislation is not necessarily prudent given the current internal situation in China and could result in further aggravation of the domestic political situation and serve to damage Beijing’s image in the international arena.