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To Crack Down on Dissent in Hong Kong, Beijing is Sidelining Local Democratic Institutions

Protesters in Hong Kong / Photo: Studio Incendo

By Maggie Shum

On the evening of May 21, China’s National People’s Congress (NPC) announced a proposal for a new national security law in Hong Kong. Prompted by ongoing anti-government protests, the law would ban activities related to sedition, foreign interference, terrorism and secession. Many expect the law to be passed in the largely rubber-stamp body of the NPC on May 28, sending yet another shockwave through Hong Kong.

For many, this law could cripple prospects for democracy in Hong Kong—eliminating the premise of “one country, two systems” that has been in place since the Handover and setting conditions for crackdown on dissent. The new law would be promulgated in Annex III of Hong Kong’s Basic Law, bypassing legislation and local resistance.

As the news broke, social media has been filled with vehement outcries. Many Hong Kongers expressed their fear of politically motivated arrests under the new law. A glimpse into recent history suggests dark times ahead for dissenters in Hong Kong. Notable Chinese citizens charged with “inciting subversion of state power” include Liu Xiaobo, Nobel Peace laureate calling for political reforms in China, and Tan Zuoren, an activist investigating the deaths of thousand children when a school collapsed in a 2008 earthquake. A nationwide crackdown on Chinese lawyers and human rights activists in 2015 also resulted in arrests of high profile activists such as Wang Quanzhang, who dealt with Falung Gong and religious prosecution cases.

What is this bill? What triggered it now?

This blow is just the latest effort to tighten Beijing’s grip on the city. Like Hungary, Israel, and the Philippines during the pandemic, Beijing and the Hong Kong government have been aggressively clamping down on the protest movement and dismantling institutional guardrails while the world is battling the covid-19 crisis.

The national security law’s origins trace back to 2003, when the Hong Kong government tried to introduce Article 23 of the Basic Law to prohibit “treason, secession, sedition and subversion” against the Chinese government. Yet, the clause was never implemented because of grave concerns regarding the erosion of Hong Kong’s cherished rights and freedoms. On July 1, 2003, anti-Article 23 sentiment culminated in the first mass demonstration since the 1997 Handover of Hong Kong from the UK to China, with half a million people marching and protesting against the proposed bill. Under unexpected public pressure, the bill was shelved in September of that year.

Yet Article 23 has persisted, like embers in a fireplace. Recent protests and crackdowns have reignited Beijing’s determination to pass the bill once and for all. Pro-Beijing lawmakers and organizations have recently made moves to garner public support for Article 23 before the September Legislative Council election, for which the pro-democracy camp is mobilizing to reclaim the majority.

However, Beijing jumped the gun. Sources speculate that Beijing is not confident about passing Article 23, given the recent anti-China political climate and the pro-democracy camp’s sweeping victory in the 2019 district council election, and thus opts for implementing the national security law through a legal backdoor.

In disregarding restrictions on mainland interference in Hong Kong’s day-to-day affairs, Beijing blamed opposition lawmakers for preventing the legislation from moving forward. State media also denounced a pro-democracy boycott movement.

In retrospect, the Hong Kong government has been paving the road for the national security law by framing the narrative surrounding protests last year. Chief Executive Carrie Lam remains unwavering in labeling protesters as rioters. Beijing claimed that the protests have “color revolution characteristics”, referring to the movements that overthrew Eastern European governments in the 2000s, with US assistance. In an unusually harsh language, Hong Kong police warned protesters in the siege of two universities that they are moving “one step closer to terrorism”. Hong Kong’s security officials have then repeatedly warned of a rise of “local terrorism”. The strategy of labeling protests as riots and local terrorism will deal a devastating blow to civil society and grassroots movements under Chinese-style “rule by law”.

The police have been given excessive power, enabling them to act with impunity. Besides a 25 percent budget increase for new crowd-control equipment and recruitment, the recent report by the “Independent” Police Complaints Council (IPCC) exonerated officers from accusations of excessive force against protesters last year, and concluded there was no systemic problem with the police. This signals that the police will likely play an augmented role in cracking down on the opposition when the national security law is implemented.

The city’s courts have also been politicized to punish dissent. Hundreds of protesters arrested during last year’s demonstrations are awaiting trail. According to Reuters, China’s state media warned Hong Kong judges and lawyers not to “absolve” them. Recent sentences appear to have imposed stiffer penalties on violence that was anti-government than pro-Beijing, with judges blaming pro-Beijing violence on the pro-democracy movement.

How can international allies respond?

Hong Kong’s anti-extradition turned pro-democracy movement is approaching its one-year anniversary with substantial success cultivating transnational advocacy networks. Unlike in the 2014 Umbrella Movement, which largely remained domestic, recent activists have sought out international allies. They raised more than $700,000 through crowdfunding to place advertisements in 19 newspapers in 13 countries, urging world leaders to raise Hong Kong’s plight at the Group of 20 summit. Activists Joshua Wong, Denise Ho, and others testified to the US Congress, ultimately resulting in the passage of the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, which imposes sanctions against officials responsible for abuses in Hong Kong. Around the same period, the Congress also passed the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act, and Tibet Policy and Support Act, defending two other oppressed population under the CCP. Moreover, the European Union, the US, and Britain banned sales of crowd-control equipment to Hong Kong. Pro-democracy rallies in support of Hong Kong have blossomed across the globe.

Yet, the COVID-19 crisis has changed the game. The pandemic not only poses threats to countries at risk of democratic backsliding, but it also presents challenges for transnational allies to remain vigilant against encroaching threats. Transnational networks are and will remain a crucial part of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement.

Maggie Shum is a research associate at the Keough School of Global Affairs at the University of Notre Dame. Her research focuses on party organization, participatory institutions and contentious politics in Latin America and Hong Kong.


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