By announcing new security legislation for Hong Kong, China has effectively brought an end to the era of “one country, two systems.” And that means the worst is yet to come, as Chinese leaders’ efforts to enforce full political control over the territory meet fierce local resistance.
China’s decision to crack down on Hong Kong with new security legislation has shocked the world. However, to those who read the resolution issued in November last year by the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), it came as no surprise.
In that document’s section pertaining to Hong Kong, the CCP signaled its intention to assert full control over the former British colony. Tighter national security laws and the establishment of unspecified new enforcement mechanisms would be just two components of a much larger, more comprehensive strategy.
Illustration: Tania Chou
Now that China is pursuing this strategy in earnest, we should expect it to follow through with the additional measures announced in November.
Besides bypassing the Hong Kong legislature with a new national security law, the CCP also intends to change the procedures for appointing the territory’s chief executive and principal officials. It would strengthen Hong Kong’s law-enforcement capabilities, and conduct a campaign to inculcate “national consciousness and patriotic spirit” among Hong Kong’s civil servants and young people. The goal is to integrate the territory’s economy much more closely with that of the mainland. As if the much-feared security law was not bad enough, the worst is yet to come.
In any case, implementation of the security law is likely be enough to end the so-called “one country, two systems” governance model that the territory has maintained since returning to Chinese rule in 1997.
According to remarks from a deputy chairman of the standing committee of the National People’s Congress, Article Four of the proposed law would authorize “relevant national security agencies of the central government” to establish permanent, operational branches in Hong Kong.
Although we do not yet know which “relevant national security agencies” this applies to, we can be certain that it would include the Ministry of State Security, the Ministry of Public Security and the People’s Armed Police. Officials from the Cyberspace Administration, which enforces cybersecurity and online censorship, might also be dispatched to Hong Kong.
Worse, the proposed law would give these agencies a sweeping mandate.
According to Article Six, each agency will have a duty to “prevent, stop and punish any activities that split the country, subvert the power of the state, organize and engage in terrorism, and activities by foreign and external forces that interfere in the affairs of Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.”
If strictly enforced, one should anticipate Chinese security agents engaging in surveillance, intimidation and arrests of not only Hong Kong residents, but also foreign nationals deemed to pose a threat to national security.
The People’s Armed Police might well be deployed to suppress the large demonstrations and riots that are sure to follow. Although it remains unclear how individuals accused of subversive activities would be prosecuted, there is a strong possibility that they would be transferred to Chinese courts, where securing convictions for trumped-up charges would be easier than in Hong Kong’s courts, which remain largely independent.
The people of Hong Kong will not submit to China’s police state without resistance. In the near term, the new law’s passage would only escalate tensions in the territory, as demonstrated by a recent clash between protesters and Hong Kong police.
As Chinese security agents begin their enforcement activities in the coming months, they are likely to encounter fierce resistance from local pro-democracy activists. Spiraling violence would precipitate an economic meltdown as capital and talent flee Asia’s global financial hub.
Meanwhile, China hawks in the US likely view this looming catastrophe as a godsend. In November last year, the US Congress passed the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, which requires the US Department of State to certify on an annual basis that Hong Kong “continues to warrant treatment under United States law in the same manner as United States laws were applied to Hong Kong before July 1, 1997.”
If Chinese security agents start arresting pro-democracy activists and their Western supporters in Hong Kong, it is impossible to imagine that US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo would allow the department to recertify the territory’s status.
In the event, decertification would bring an end to all or most commercial and travel privileges that the US has maintained for Hong Kong since 1997, possibly dealing a fatal blow to the territory’s economy. And the US would not be the only Western country to make China pay a price for its aggressive gambit.
For US allies who have been hesitant to take sides in the unfolding Sino-American confrontation, Beijing’s latest move would make their decision much easier. Whatever doubts they might have harbored about plunging the world into another cold war would have been assuaged.
China would have left them with no alternative but to join a US-led anti-China coalition.
One can be confident that China’s leaders have considered these calamitous consequences and calculated that imposing the new security law on Hong Kong was worth the risks. The international community must prove them wrong.
Pei Minxin is a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and a non-resident senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the US.
Copyright: Project Syndicate
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