Steve Shaw reports on Beijing’s new national security law, approved today, to bring Hong Kong further under its control.
It was once known for its vibrant neon-drenched streets, bustling markets and unique merging of western values with Chinese culture. But walk down the streets of Hong Kong today and what stands out is the sense of fear and hopelessness that has taken hold of many of its residents.
Scrawled across towering concrete apartment blocks and sprawling office buildings are slogans that plead to the world for help against Beijing’s authoritarian rule. Others declare this the “revolution of our time” and quote British author Alan Moore, whose famous graphic novel V for Vendetta centres around a freedom fighter battling against a totalitarian government in futuristic London.
One such quote reads: “People shouldn’t be afraid of their Government. Governments should be afraid of their people.”
But, after nearly a year of protests which have seen many of the city’s streets stained with the blood of demonstrators and the air filled with tear gas, many believe that the time of resistance is over thanks to a new national security law thrust upon the city by lawmakers in Beijing who have lost their patience.
People might simply say that the Government is bad and then be arrested like in mainland China… when they said it, I was shocked, I felt suicidal thoughts erupting like a volcano.John, living in Hong Kong
It will forbid secessionist and “subversive activity”, as well as foreign interference and “terrorism” – a term many officials have used to describe the protests. It will also allow intelligence agencies from the mainland to set up on Hong Kong soil and block foreign judges from handling national security trials, despite there being 15 on the 23-person Court of Final Appeal, the city’s highest court. Law-makers in the city are also debating a separate bill that would make it a criminal offence to insult the Chinese national anthem.
“We are told that any protest against the national security law necessitates the national security law,” said James, a man in his early 20s who lives in the city. “All the protests in Hong Kong and the hope that the city’s Government would listen to our demands pretty much scattered when the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) stepped in. The whole Hong Kong Government is not only without spine, they have no brain to act independently at all.
“Hong Kong people have never had the right to decide for themselves, historically we have been manipulated by Britain and China constantly. I am disappointed to see we have never gotten out of this tragic fate, despite the fact we have proven we are capable of bringing a future and hope to the city.
“The death of Hong Kong is destined when people with social status, political power and wealth don’t resist at all. Instead they point the finger at the younger generations and blame them for causing the problems. I am disappointed many of those people have not stood up for justice and human dignity and instead are willingly allowing this to happen. They are the reason Hong Kong never got what it deserved, because they kneel to whomever gives them the most benefits.”
Violating ‘One Country, Two Systems’
China is attempting to force the national security law onto Hong Kong by September, despite it being a clear breach of the ‘one country, two systems’ agreement that came into force when the city re-joined China in 1997.
Under that agreement, which is set to expire in 2047, the UK helped guarantee that Hong Kong would retain a degree of autonomy, including a separate legislature and judicial system, as well as some civil liberties. Hong Kong’s mini-constitution created at the time, known as Basic Law, also states that the territory is required to implement a national security law but that it must do so on its own. Beijing does not have the authority to do it unilaterally.
“In terms of the law, it is really ridiculous and we don’t have any say on the issue,” said Maria, a journalism student in the city. “Hong Kong and China have different judiciary and legislative systems. This is why we are special. China’s National People’s Congress cannot just make this decision for us. The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region and Chinese Governments keep trying to impose evil laws in Hong Kong. First it was an extradition bill, then an anti-mask law and now the national security law. Mass protests in 2003 had already shown strong objections to national security legislation but clearly the Governments haven’t learnt from that. These undemocratically elected officials don’t listen to their people at all.”
But Beijing’s lack of respect for ‘one country, two systems’ and the CCP’s willingness to violate it has come after years of the UK Government failing to properly stand up for it, often because its priority has been trade relationships, particularly after Brexit. In one instance in 2017, China’s foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang said that the Sino-British declaration was a “historical document that no longer has any realistic meaning”. He went on to say “Britain has no sovereignty, no governing power and no supervising power over Hong Kong”. Around the same time, the then UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said that the principle of “one country, two systems” was “functioning well”.
Ben Rogers, chair and founder of Hong Kong Watch, told Byline Times that it is time the UK takes a stronger stance: “The UK should speak out very robustly and clearly, build an international coalition of like-minded Governments to do the same, and explore ways of legal redress for violation of an international treaty, perhaps via the International Court of Justice.”
He added that he believes the threat of the national security law is a “grave violation” of ‘one country, two systems’ which undermines the autonomy given to the city.
Meanwhile, Chinese state media has defended the move, claiming that it is the only way to “guarantee the ‘one country, two systems’ principle can function normally and for Hong Kong to enjoy a high degree of autonomy”.
Global Times, a newspaper overseen by the CCP, said that the National People’s Congress needs to “shoulder the responsibility” of introducing the law and “help a lost Hong Kong find its position as a special administrative region of China”.
Mental Health Concerns Rise
As the political wrangling continues over who should have the ability to control one of the biggest financial centres in the world, it is the city’s residents caught in the middle who are paying the price.
A study, organised by Hong Kong’s Mental Health Month Organising Committee, found that the mental health of people over the age of 15 has deteriorated to its worst level in years, with 41% of survey respondents saying that their mental health had been negatively affected by social disputes. Multiple suicides have also been linked to the protests.
John, a 23-year-old struggling with depression, told Byline Times that Beijing’s interference in the city and his fears of living in a totalitarian society have caused him to regularly contemplate suicide.
Historically we have been manipulated by Britain and China constantly. I am disappointed to see we have never gotten out of this tragic fate.James, living in Hong Kong
“I feel hopeless, like there is no way things will return to the way they used to be and no matter what we do, I feel like the CCP is going to take control of Hong Kong,” he said. “It is just a matter of time. Around late July or early August, I started having thoughts about suicide.
“I, along with many Hong Kongers, have been trying so hard to stand up for ourselves but the Government keeps implementing tactics that are ridiculous as if they want things to get worse. This national security law is a turning point for Hong Kong. There are no boundaries for the way in which it can be applied.
“People might simply say that the Government is bad and then be arrested like in mainland China. I feel like this has been the strongest move from the Government and when they said it, I was shocked, I felt suicidal thoughts erupting like a volcano.
“Freedom and democracy are basically the two main things in a civilised country. I don’t want someone else trying to control what I say, when I say it, where I say it and what I do. I also don’t want to be isolated from the rest of the world with websites blocked and our culture and Cantonese language erased. What would be the point in living?”
UK Expresses Concern
Byline Times asked the UK’s Foreign Office to explain what specific measures are being taken over the potential breach of the Sino-British Joint Declaration, as well as whether any meetings have been called with Beijing to discuss the situation.
A spokesman provided a link to a joint statement from the UK, Australia and Canada which simply admitted that the national security law undermines the ‘one country, two systems’ principle and states that the three countries are “deeply concerned”.
The spokesman added that concerns have been raised with the Chinese Government in Beijing, the Chinese Ambassador in London and the acting Chief Executive in Hong Kong. He did not address whether a meeting with the Chinese Government has been arranged.
Since the 1997 handover, the UK Government has published six-monthly reports on the implementation of the joint declaration and has not missed a single one so far, except for the period of June 2019 to December 2019 – the height of the protests. Byline Times asked the Foreign Office why this had not been published and was told it would be “in due course”.
Names of residents have been changed to protect their identity