Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, stood in front of reporters yesterday for the most consequential press conference of her time leading the city. Prior to Lam stepping behind the podium, news had begun to stream in that officials in Beijing had passed a national-security law to be imposed on Hong Kong, the most significant altering of the ostensibly autonomous territory’s status since it was handed back to China from Britain in 1997. Timothy McLaughlin specially for The Atlantic.
The law, a direct result of Lam’s introduction and mismanagement of a proposed extradition bill last year, which had led to mass demonstrations, was shrouded in secrecy. A draft had not been made public. Even pro-Beijing lawmakers and Lam herself had been kept in the dark about its full contents. She opened her remarks by saying that she wouldn’t be addressing the law, then moved on to speaking about an employment scheme and the city’s handling of COVID-19. When reporters pressed Lam on the law, she declined to say anything other than that commenting on the legislation would be inappropriate.
Twenty-three years ago today, Tung Chee-hwa, Hong Kong’s first chief executive, marked the territory’s return to Chinese rule by outlining the challenges ahead, but also with the promise of a more prosperous future for residents. Free from more than 150 years of colonial rule, “for the first time in history,” Tung said, “we, the people of Hong Kong, will be master of our own destiny.”
Yet in one of the most crucial moments in the city’s history, its leader was unaware of the contents of a far-reaching piece of legislation. She was shut out of the decision making, and incapable of answering any questions about the law. Her officials were also sidelined in the lawmaking process, and Hong Kongers’ concerns were ignored. With the adoption of this national-security law, it is a return to history for the territory: Colonized by the British, briefly and brutally occupied by the Japanese, never fully its own, once again overlords in a distant capital are making decisions on Hong Kong’s behalf. It could not be more clear how hollow Tung’s words now ring.
The new law covers four areas: separatist activity, state subversion, terrorist activity, and collusion with foreign forces, along the way targeting many of the tactics used by demonstrators, both on and off the streets. Sabotaging transportation systems and damaging government buildings—both of which were common during last year’s protests—are now deemed a terrorist offense and an act of subversion, respectively. In the most serious cases, both would be punishable with life imprisonment. Some of the 66 articles of the law target funding and working with foreign groups: Protesters last year raised millions of dollars for ad campaigns and legal-defense funds, while others lobbied the United States and other nations to impose sanctions on Hong Kong, deploying a youthful, unofficial diplomatic corps that enraged pro-Beijing officials. (Lam and Beijing have both blamed foreign forces for fomenting unrest in Hong Kong, though neither has provided evidence to back up these claims.) The most “complex” cases will be handled on the mainland. To enforce these new measures, a Committee for Safeguarding National Security will be established. It will be accountable to Beijing and work in secret, not subject to judicial review by Hong Kong’s courts.
The national-security law is in some ways even more troubling than reforms from prior decades, in that at least Britain would offer some measure of consultation with the city’s residents before announcing such significant changes, according to Steve Tsang, the director of the China Institute at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies and the author of several history books on Hong Kong. This latest law is instead “a bloodless version” of China’s 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, he told me. “People tend to focus on the killing [at Tiananmen], but the killing was an instrument,” Tsang said. “The objective was to intimidate and terrify the people so that people don’t even think about [protesting] again.” The goal now, Tsang added, is avoiding a repeat of 2019’s prodemocracy protests, which saw millions demonstrate for universal suffrage, along with other demands.
Even before the text of the law was eventually published, which happened late last night when the law went into effect, the legislation was having the desired deterrent effect that pro-Beijing officials told me over the past few weeks they hoped it would have. Businesses, university heads, and government departments obediently fell in line to publicly support it, fearful of backlash from China otherwise. Well-known prodemocracy activists, including Joshua Wong, who rose to prominence during the Umbrella Movement of 2014 and who is loathed in Beijing, resigned from their organizations. Demosisto, Wong’s political party, then said it would disband. Other student and activist groups followed. Even some restaurants that had openly supported the demonstrations, part of what was dubbed the “yellow economic circle,” began taking down posters and protest paraphernalia.
Thousands came out today to protest the law, despite police banning the annual rally that marks the handover of Hong Kong, and were met with now-familiar responses: tear gas, pepper balls, and blasts from water cannons. By the evening, less than 24 hours after the legislation was fully unveiled, nine people had been arrested for allegedly violating it, police said. One man was arrested for having a Hong Kong independence flag in his bag, while a woman was arrested for carrying a handwritten independence sign adorned with paper British and American flags. A 15-year-old girl was arrested for waving a flag that read i stand for hong kong independence, police said. News of the first arrest came as Lam and two of her deputies told members of the media that the law would be used only in rare cases. After her news conference yesterday, Lam told the United Nations Human Rights Council that the law would “not affect legitimate rights and freedoms,” including the right to protest.
“This is serious business,” Cora Chan, an associate law professor at the University of Hong Kong, told me. In particular, she noted that the Committee for Safeguarding National Security will be responsible not just for assessing the national-security situation of Hong Kong, but also for formulating policies related to the possible regulation of an array of sectors and groups, including education, the internet, media, NGOs, and the civil service. A dedicated police unit with expanded powers will investigate national-security cases. “The scope of the law exceeds the wildest of expectations. Essentially, Beijing now has unbridled powers in Hong Kong,” Chan said. She added that “the security law poses unfathomable threats to Hong Kong’s autonomy and freedoms, and to Hong Kong’s status as an international city and financial center,” because it both dramatically increases the potential occasions in which Chinese legal principles could be imposed and institutionalizes and normalizes Beijing’s intervention in the city’s legal system.
Lee Morgenbesser, a senior lecturer who studies authoritarian regimes at Griffith University’s School of Government and International Relations in Australia, says it is “difficult to recall a law imposed by any authoritarian regime in recent memory that is so unambiguously draconian.” The law, he told me, is a “deplorable but textbook example of an authoritarian regime using lawfare against its perceived enemies. This strategy exploits an established degree of control over various legal and judicial systems in order to drastically shrink the operating space of citizens, civil-society organizations, and opposition members.”
One of the law’s most jarring articles states that it would apply to any person who commits offenses under the legislation, even if they are outside Hong Kong and aren’t a permanent resident of the territory. “Remarkably, this provision gives the law an even broader reach than mainland criminal law,” Donald Clarke, a specialist in Chinese law at George Washington University, wrote in his analysis of the legislation. “If you’ve ever said anything that might offend the PRC [People’s Republic of China] or Hong Kong authorities, stay out of Hong Kong.”
British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said that the law is a “clear and serious breach” of the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration, the agreement that paved the way for Hong Kong’s handover to Chinese rule, and that London would allow millions of Hong Kongers holding British National (Overseas) passports, as well as those eligible for such documents, to resettle in Britain. Raab’s U.S. counterpart, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, said the law “destroys the territory’s autonomy and one of China’s greatest achievements.” U.S. lawmakers have also introduced a bill that would grant refugee status to Hong Kongers at risk of persecution under the new law.
Speaking at a ceremony this morning to mark the anniversary of the city’s handover, Lam took a markedly different tack, saying the legislation is a “turning point to take Hong Kong out of the current impasse and to restore stability and order from the chaos.” The law does not address any of the grievances raised by demonstrators over the past year, though that seemed to be of little bother to Lam. At a news conference later in the day, she said, “There are some saying that they will continue their fight, but it does not matter. Because we have the law now, and we will strongly enforce it.”
Timothy McLaughlin is a Hong Kong–based contributing writer at The Atlantic.