Updated: Jun 4
The question surrounding global leadership has gained significance much more than ever before in the COVD-19 world order. The view that the West, led by the U.S. is receding from international affairs is supported by the Chinese attempts to signal its leadership role. This is visible in its medical diplomacy, its attempts at narrative creation as well as its increasing aggression in international affairs at a time when the world is battling the pandemic. China has been aggressively exerting itself in Asia and beyond as evident in its military forays in the South China Sea, its repeated transgressions on the Senkaku Islands, its actions in the Taiwan Straits, on the India-China borders and in Hong Kong through its planned imposition of the security law in Hong Kong. While the world is battling the pandemic, as well as the economic fallouts of it, China has found time and space to use the world’s distraction and is actively losing no time in trying to acquire whatever it sees as its own.
In the context of Hong Kong, China stunned the city when it announced that it would impose a national security law on it. While it is in the process of being actually turned in to law, as China has so far submitted only a draft resolution to its parliament, some of the provisions heavily curtail freedoms in Hong Kong. These criminalize secession as any act that might be interpreted as breaking away from the country, criminalization of any activity that might be seen as subversive or undermining the power or authority of the central government, bringing activities that use violence or intimidation of people under the ambit of terrorism, and criminalizing activities by foreign forces that interfere in Hong Kong. Several residents of Hong Kong are also worried that China could set up its own institutions in the city for the purposes of maintenance of security.
Since its handover by Hong Kong to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1997, Hong Kong has been constitutionally governed by the “one country two systems” principle. The principle was formulated by Deng Xiaoping in the early 1980s, during his negotiations with the United Kingdom over Hong Kong. Deng had suggested that while there would be only one China, Hong Kong could retain its own economic and administrative system, while the rest of Mainland China operates under socialism with Chinese characteristics. Under the constitutional principle of one country two systems, Hong Kong could continue to have its own government system, manage its own legal, economic and financial affairs, including trade relations with foreign countries- all of which were to be independent of the Mainland. The Chinese Yuan is not legal tender in Hong Kong, while the Hong Kong dollar is not accepted for commercial transactions in the PRC. Beyond this, a special permit or visa is needed when passing between the borders of Hong Kong and the PRC, and the residents of Hong Kong hold Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) passports rather than PRC passports. While Mandarin is the official language in the PRC, it is Cantonese and English that are the legal languages in Hong Kong.
Before delving into the currently planned national security law, it is first important to understand two large scale incidents of protests that took place in Hong Kong in 2014 and 2019 respectively to understand the fears with respect to the PRC’s imposition of laws from outside. In 2014, a series of sit-in protests often called the Umbrella Revolution or the Occupy Movement occurred in Hong Kong from September 14 to December 15. The protests began after the PRC issued a decision regarding proposed reforms to the Hong Kong electoral system. The National People’s Congress Standing Committee (NPCSC) of the PRC decided that a 1200 member nominating committee based in the current format followed by the present Election Committee should select only two or three candidates before presenting them for a territory-wide ballot by ordinary voters, and each candidate must have more than half of the support members of the Election Committee. The Election Committee is Hong Kong’s electoral college, the function of which is to select the Chief Executive. Because of the proposals, the fear set in Hong Kong that the limits set by Beijing for the selection of the city’s leader- i.e. its chief executive will lead to biased choices. The fear was high because, in March 2013, Qiao Xiaoyang, the chairman of the Law Committee under the NPCSC had stated that Chief Executive candidates must be persons who love the country and Hong Kong and who do not insist on confronting the central government. Analysts believed that this was precisely to screen out candidates from the pro-democracy groups in Hong Kong. In the protests that followed, government officials in Hong Kong as well as in Beijing denounced the occupation or the peaceful sit-ins as illegal and as violations of the rule of law. Chinese state media and officials repeatedly claimed that the West had played an instigating role in the protests, and they even warned of deaths and injuries and other grave consequences.
This insistence from PRC officials about foreign involvement in Hong Kong’s protests was seen again in 2019, when people took to the streets, post the introduction of the extradition law. The protests in Hong Kong which began in 2019 are still ongoing. The enactment of the Fugitive Offenders amendment bill would allow the extradition of wanted suspects to territories including the PRC and Taiwan- with which Hong Kong did not have extradition treaties when the proposal was introduced. This led to concerns that the bill would subject Hong Kong residents and visitors to the jurisdiction and legal system of the PRC, thereby undermining Hong Kong's autonomy and civil liberties, and infringe on privacy and freedom of speech laws.
Due to the outbreak of COVID-19 and the necessity for quarantine, the protests dispersed somewhere between December 2019 and January 2020. However, since April this year, when the numbers of COVID-19 affected in Hong Kong slowly started reducing, protestors started re-emerging. In April, more than 100 protestors gathered in the Landmark Atrium mall in Central- which is a prestigious business and retail district, and sang protest anthems, and held up signs reading Free Hong Kong, Revolution now, and Hong Kong Independence. People also protested against atrocities by the Hong Kong police.
In addition to the problems that people were protesting against in the aftermath of the proposal of the Fugitive Offenders Amendment Bill, Hong Kong residents by the thousands took to the streets to protest the new draconian national security law. As of May 29, 360 people had been arrested. The rationale of the Communist Party of China for the implementation of the law, as reflected by an article by Cui Tiankai, the Chinese Ambassador to the U.S. is that protestors in Hong Kong have time and again instigated violence and clamored for Hong Kong’s independence. As stated by Article 23 of the Basic Law, HKSAR is authorized to enact laws on its own to safeguard national security. But these laws have been delayed for 23 years because the opposition has tried in every way to strangle the enactment of such laws.
Juxtaposing Cui’s rationale with some tenets of the national security law, it becomes clear that the need to quell any sort of demand for independence is extremely important for China. Beijing has apparently had enough of Umbrella Movements and the kind of protests that took place in 2019-2020. Additionally, it is clear from the accusations made both in 2014 and in 2019 about foreign interference and instigation of protests, Beijing sees it essential to curb anything that it sees foreign interference- which is the reason for the stress on criminalizing foreign forces that interfere in Hing Kong. While the proposal is yet to become a full-fledged law, which it will in due course of time, this is clearly an ominous sign from Beijing, and it means a further blow to the tenets of democracy. While several countries across the globe have been extremely critical of the national security bill, fact remains that for each country in this COVID-19 world order, resources or energy to spend on anything beyond its own public health security and economic vitality is next to impossible. This is being utilized by the PRC to the fullest, and more such aggressive moves are to follow not just in Hong Kong, but in Taiwan as well, and all across the globe.
About the expert:
Dr. Sriparna Pathak is the Assistant Academic Dean & Assistant Professor at Jindal School of International Affairs. She was formerly a Visiting Faculty at the Centre for Southeast Asian Studies, Gauhati University. She was also an Assistant Professor at Assam Don Bosco University. Prior to this, Dr. Pathak was a Consultant at the Policy Planning and Research Division at the Ministry of External Affairs, New Delhi. She is also a Fellow at the South Asia Democratic Forum in Brussels.
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