After the National Security Law: What Next for Hong Kong?

On May 28, China’s primary legislative body, the National People’s Congress (NPC), announced a new law that, if imposed, will allow Beijing to tighten its authoritative hold over Hong Kong. Passed in the NPC by a vote of 2878 to 1, the national security law has bypassed Hong Kong’s own legislative procedures, and could have serious and lasting political and economic repercussions.

The drafted law begins with a recounting of the NPC of what it considers obvious and severe threats to national security: “[the ideology of] ‘Hong Kong independence,’ national separatists, violent terrorist activity and other types of illegal activity”. According to Xinhua, the security law is intended to “safeguard national sovereignty, security, and development interests, reinforce and perfect the ‘one country, two systems’ structure, maintain Hong Kong’s long-term prosperity and stability, and ensure the lawful rights of Hong Kong’s residents”. The draft lists six main goals that the new security law would accomplish, including creating a more complete and unified security code, allowing mainland China’s law enforcement to oppose any activity that threatens national security in Hong Kong, and requiring the chief executive of Hong Kong’s national security to regularly report to the Chinese government.

Though the language of the national security law seems to promote Hong Kong’s autonomy and the One Country, Two Systems (OCTS) arrangement, many politicians and business leaders are reading between the lines and wondering what the new law will mean for the future of Hong Kong.

For one, it means the possible end of OCTS, which has been in place since Hong Kong was handed over to mainland China from British rule in 1997. If Chinese intelligence and law enforcement agencies take charge in Hong Kong, residents could lose basic rights such as their freedoms of speech and assembly. Because of its ambiguous criminal laws, the Chinese government tends to couple peaceful protesters and human rights activists with separatists and violent terrorist groups, all under the umbrella of “national security threats.”

In January 2020, the Chinese government detained at least five Chinese human rights lawyers and pro-democracy activists and sentenced them to prison. Verbal criticisms of the government that categorically fall under the right to free speech in Hong Kong are often interpreted in China as sinister and criminal. For China to pass the national security law would be to remove the distinction between the mainland and Hong Kong criminal systems, subjecting the latter to the same standards of criminal behavior currently in place in the former. Hong Kong’s current national security law has not been updated since 1997 and is perhaps insufficiently developed to address the issues Hong Kong currently faces. Article 23 of the Basic Law stipulates that the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) “shall enact laws on its own to prohibit any act of treason, secession, sedition, subversion against the Central People’s Government,” yet any attempt to change the law since 1997 has been met by opposition and protests as citizens fear national security laws will undermine their human rights.

Many are worried that the national security law could impact Hong Kong’s economic growth, as well. For twenty-five years Hong Kong has enjoyed economic prosperity similar to the growth of mainland China. Hong Kong shares special economic relationships with foreign nations that China does not. However, the national security law—which specifically opposes any foreign intervention in the affairs of Hong Kong’s government—could remove Hong Kong’s presence on the global economic stage. President Trump has already announced that the national security law will require the United States to remove Hong Kong’s special economic status under American law. Tanya Chan, of Hong Kong’s Civic Party, said that “Hong Kong’s reputation as an international financial centre is being threatened.”

Foreign business owners in Hong Kong are also beginning to express uneasiness about the prospect of the new security law impacting the country’s continued economic development. On June 3rd, AmCham published results of a survey they conducted among large business owners in Hong Kong (mostly US-owned companies) concerning their response to the national security bill. Out of 180 individuals who responded, 53% stated that they are “very concerned” about Hong Kong’s national security law, while 30% are “moderately concerned.” Only 16% responded that they are “not concerned.” 60% of the business owners believe that the new security law will harm their business operations, however, only 37% claim that they are considering leaving Hong Kong and relocating their business elsewhere.

There are currently many big business owners and executive leaders in Hong Kong who have expressed support for the new legislation. The riots in the last year have had an enormous economic toll on many ordinary residents, so some Hongkongers see this new legislation as a welcome method of reestablishing economic stability. Regardless, the threat of this national security law has already sparked new waves of protests this week in Hong Kong, as residents sense a looming threat that could potentially obliterate the political freedom they’ve enjoyed for twenty-five years.

The stark reality of this threat was made more evident this week as Hong Kong passed an Anthem Law on Thursday, June 4th—the 31st anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacres in Beijing. The law prohibits any mockery of China’s national anthem, the penalties being steep fines and prison sentences. The Anthem Law comes at a potent time, as many in Hong Kong interpret its announcement as Beijing tightening its grip on Hong Kong by undermining the “one country, two systems” policy. The Anthem Law and national security law could make it illegal for citizens of Hong Kong to gather in the thousands on June 4th, as they have done every year since 1990 to honor the protesters that were killed at Tiananmen Square. 2020 is the first year the Hong Kong police formally banned gathering for the Tiananmen Square vigil, asserting that the event would increase spread of the coronavirus. Though the event was deemed unsafe by law enforcement, Joshua Rosenzweig, director of Amnesty International, said, “Covid-19 must not be used as an excuse to stifle freedom of expression… with this ban, and a disastrous national security law looming, it is not clear if Hong Kong’s Tiananmen vigil will ever be allowed to take place again.” Many pro-democracy leaders in Hong Kong insisted on gathering, despite the opposition.

The list of potential ramifications of China’s national security law for Hong Kong continues: restricted travel, filtered social media content, prosecution for exercising human rights, and more. The future of Hong Kong’s political and economic autonomy remains uncertain. However, the residents of Hong Kong historically have not allowed Beijing to implement laws that they find unjust without putting up a fight. Already we have seen the bill spark the type of protests that it intends to eliminate.