Updated: Jun 8, 2020
On May 20, 2020, it became clear that China's Communist Party (CCP) would attempt to enact a national security law that would erode Hong Kong's autonomy and bring the city under its control during the annual meeting of the National People's Congress (NPC). The US Department of State has called the move, "highly destabilizing," and vowed retaliation if Beijing attempts to erode the city's inhabitants basic freedoms.
Hong Kong was a British Colony and Dependent Territory of the United Kingdom until 1997, when it was handed back over to Beijing after London obtained guarantees that the city's freedoms, system, and laws would be protected until the year 2047. It is clear, however, that the Chinese government has not honored the terms of the pact. Over the past 23 years, the central government has repeatedly attempted to undercut Hong Kong’s semi-autonomous system and rewrite the “one country, two systems" framework.
The exact structure of the proposed law has been shrouded in secrecy by Chinese officials. In fact, the only public statement made by the Chinese government in regards to the legislation was by Stanley Ng, head of the NPC, who declared the law would outlaw secession, attempts to subvert state power, foreign interference in city affairs, and terrorism. In the view of the CCP and Chinese government, tighter control over Hong Kong is necessary to preserve domestic order and to protect the state from hostile external forces.
While details regarding the new legislation are hard to come by, one can begin to piece together what such a law would look like from previous attempts by Beijing to curb opposition in the city. Censorship of the press, searches without warrants, and the destruction of the city's free and independent judiciary would undoubtedly be included in any draft. Furthermore, an attempt by the central government to exercise greater control over the city may result in the city's businesses being forced to comply with the state's intelligence apparatus. Chinese law requires any company operating within China must do their most to help the security state. In 2014, China instituted the Counter-Espionage Law, which states, "when the state security organ investigates and understands the situation of espionage and collects relevant evidence, the relevant organizations and individuals shall provide it truthfully and may not refuse."
The 2017 National Intelligence Law went further, requiring, "any organization or citizen shall support, assist and cooperate with the state intelligence work in accordance with the law." Such forced cooperation would quickly erode the city's preeminent position as the home for western businesses in China.
Most importantly, the legislation would undoubtedly empower Beijing to legally bring the hammer down on Hong Kong's protestors who have been directly challenging the CCP's leadership. Mass protests erupted in Hong Kong against the central government in 2019, when activists called attention to Beijing's increasing interference in city affairs and repeated attacks on Hong Kong's democratic system. While COVID-19 and social distancing guidelines have caused a lull in the amount of protests, the tension between Beijing and the protestors remains. If the national security law is enacted against the will of the people, it is extremely likely the city will see such mass uprisings occur once more.
The United States has been very public in its denunciation of the proposed legislation. On May 21, President Donald J. Trump told the White House press pool, "if it happens, we’ll address that issue very strongly." At the Department of State, Secretary Mike Pompeo observed that the intelligence community was watching the situation very closely, and that any harsh treatment of protestors would result in a swift and powerful response from the United States.
Hong Kong is just another area where the new Cold War between the United States and People's Republic of China is being waged. On May 22, the US Department of Commerce announced sanctions on eight Chinese companies and a Chinese government institute over human rights abuses against Uyghurs and other minority groups in China's western Xinjiang region. The same day, Republican and Democratic Senators announced they would introduce legislation to impose sanctions on Chinese officials for human rights abuses against protestors in Hong Kong and the violation of the city's independence.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the United States Army, Department of Defense, or the United States Government.