Hong Kong Autonomy Under Direct Threat?

12 mins read

New sweeping security law imposed on Hong Kong by China spells premature end to 2047 autonomy promise

As of the 3rd of July, hundreds of Hong Kong citizens have been arrested under a controversial and ambiguous new national security law imposed by China. The sweeping new law grants Beijing judicial powers to crack down on a whole host of perceived political crimes against China: separatism, collusion, terrorism, and subversion.

Zhang Xiaoming, a deputy director of the central Chinese government gave official comment at a news conference in Beijing on Wednesday, 1st of July : “This law is to punish a tiny number of criminals who seriously endanger national security- a sharp sword hanging high over their heads that will serve as a deterrent against external forces meddling in Hong Kong.”

Zhang Xiaoming addresses citizens in China, Credit EyePress News

The law came into effect on Tuesday 30th June, conceived and passed in secrecy without significant input from Hong Kong authorities, in which a vast security network will be set up within Hong Kong with China having the power to subvert the freedom of expression Hong Kong is legally entitled to, contrary to the rest of all mainland China.

Hong Kong’s population has taken to the streets against China since early 2019, fearing further interference and legal infringement on their unique rights as a Chinese territory by the mainland Chinese government.

Hong Kong has long been locked into protests against the central Chinese government, from the 1980’s handover to present day- the 2019-20 protests were a specific response to a proposed extradition bill, the Fugitive Offenders amendment, which would allow extradition of Hong Kong residents to jurisdictions with which Hong Kong did not have extradition agreements with, primarily mainland China and Taiwan.

As a result of these protests sweeping Hong Kong, chief executive Carrie Lam eventually withdrew the bill after initially postponing it after more protests of angry citizens fighting for their rights and freedoms took to social media to inform the world of their situation, after more than 9,000 people were arrested and 2,600 injured.

Hong Kong protesters take to the streets, Credit: Financial Times

It is thought that the new enforced security law is a response to Hong Kong’s expression of desire for independence or further autonomy in the face of Chinese attempts to integrate the territory. China will be likely preparing to consolidate Hong Kong into China over the next few decades, while some of Hong Kong’s citizens envision an independent city state.

Regardless of intent, China’s actions are illegal, and the security law a worrying patchwork of crime and punishment. Maximum punishment for these 4 poorly defined crimes (terrorism, collusion, secession, subversion) within Hong Kong is life imprisonment, whereas if Hong Kong citizens are extradited to China, they could face the death penalty in Chinese courts. 

The security law is woefully ambiguous, with many fearing Hong Kongers subjection to arrests over simply unfurling a pro Hong Kong independence flag; on the 1st a local man seen with a Hong Kong flag during a demonstration and subsequently arrested under the new law. This man was thought to be the first arrested in a trial of the security legislation, with police taking to Twitter to insist he had been detained for “violating the #NationalSecurityLaw.”

Ambiguous laws pertaining to security send fear globally, primarily due to their ability to be twisted and interpreted by governments as the situation calls for it. What exactly constitutes the crimes of secession, or collusion? Due to the vast difference in social freedoms between China and Hong Kong, it is likely China is choosing to start enforcing ideological stipulations on its only autonomous territory, tightening its ownership on the unique territory.

The new national security laws have been lambasted by human-rights activists and governments worldwide as a devastating blow for Hong Kong’s human rights, expression, and freedoms. The EU ‘deplores’ the passage of the security law, with many other countries such as Japan expressing extreme dismay for China’s disregard and bypassing of Hong Kong legislature.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnston responded with a somewhat formal statement indicating that the British Government will be “looking at the law very carefully and we will want to scrutinise it properly to understand whether it is in conflict with the Joint Declaration between the UK and China.”

Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab wrote on Twitter that “China has chosen to break their promises to the people of Hong Kong and go against their obligations to the international community,” and Britain has responded to the enforcement of the new security law to offer nearly 3 million residents of Hong Kong with a British National Overseas status (BNO) the right to settle in the UK.

China has responded to Britain’s offer with anger, with foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian stating that Britain would bear “all consequences” for their actions. No further details have been announced as of yet regarding the potentially explosive consequences this offer will have on Chinese-British relations.

Global commentary has led China to denounce interference from outsiders in its affairs, a sentiment suggesting China disregards the negative attention it is garnering on the world stage, a possible portent of further action against Hong Kong.   

Hong Kong is officially Chinese territory, though their relationship is unique and must be understood to fully comprehend the international situation surrounding the new national security law.

Hong Kong exists within China and is indeed part of mainland China. However, as per the handover terms Britain and China agreed to when Hong Kong was given back to Chinese control, Hong Kong’s autonomy and right to live the lifestyle in which they had become accustom to was a strict stipulation outlined by the British government.

Until 2047, Hong Kong’ autonomy was to be respected by China, although ultimately was given back to China under the British-Sino Joint Declaration of 1985. This presents various problems internationally with regards to acting against China’s intent and new laws- Hong Kong is indeed Chinese territory, but this lack of compliance and respect for the joint declaration is potentially highly illegal.

As Hong Kong was previously a British colony, it obviously differs drastically in social freedoms comparatively to mainland China. Free press, freedom of speech, the right to protest and many other staples of Western democracy are present within Hong Kong. This presents a complex and unique situation for Hong Kong’s social and political integration into China, a communist nation with nationalised, stricter control over its people and their actions and beliefs.

Carrie Lam, Chief Executive of Hong Kong commits to working closely with Beijing, Credit Bill Cox @ The Epoch Times

China and Hong Kong exist, and have existed since 1985 under a ‘One Country, Two Systems’ banner, the first and only arrangement of its kind in the world. Given the ideological differences between Britain and China, Hong Kong was privy to a litany of freedoms of expression Chinese citizens were not. Hong Kong has long been able to soft-criticise the actions of its communist neighbour without fear of repercussion. However, Hong Kong is Chinese territory. It was perhaps an inevitability that China would seek to bring Hong Kong into its ideological control, to unify its territories.

In the 90’s, Hong Kong was the economic powerhouse of China; Chinese authorities felt that the British-Chinese fusion perhaps possessed a unique attribute that allowed for greater economic prosperity. A more relaxed business atmosphere, with a strong currency in the form of the Hong Kong Dollar, easily converted back into US dollars which made it a strong trading arena. Given Hong Kong’s economic strength, China kept promises made about preserving its autonomy without too much interference.

Fast forward to present day and Hong Kong makes up around 3% of China’s total GDP, contrary to over 25% it comprised only decades previously. It would seem that notions of a Sino-British powercity have been swept away by Chinese growth, as Shenzhen, Shanghai, and Beijing exploded. Perhaps China sees no economic benefit from allowing Hong Kong to continue with Western-style freedoms of expression any longer.

Make no mistake however, Hong Kong remains one of the most lucrative and developed cities in the world, let alone China, and is a valuable asset to the Chinese economy. The strange situation presented with the ‘one country, two systems’ model perhaps renders some Hong Kongers complacent about their position of independence from China- quite simply, they are not. Yet the autonomy they experience relative to mainland China may fog their perception of being a Chinese territory. This creates a slew of ideological issues and a sense of separatism that strictly speaking doesn’t exist- and yet it does.    

Regardless of the unique problems the ‘one country, two systems’ policy creates, China’s actions are illegal per the Sino-British Joint Declaration to honour Hong Kong’s autonomy until 2047, and the world should be cautious of any country using poorly defined notions of crimes to erode the freedoms of their citizens as we have seen throughout political history.

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