Hong Kong is not yet cowed. That was, unquestionably, Beijing’s aim in imposing the draconian National Security Law after a year of protests. The law has demolished the pledge to allow the region to maintain its freedoms until 2047. It has struck fear into the city. In the hours after it took effect, Demosisto, the pro-democracy party founded by young protesters including Joshua Wong, disbanded itself. Individuals deleted social media accounts.
Yet Mr Wong was among thousands who took to the streets once more for the annual 1 July protest march, defying a ban. More than 370 were arrested, including at least nine under the new law – one a 15-year-old girl waving a Hong Kong independence flag. Though the law is purportedly aimed at a small minority intent on separatism, subversion, terrorism and “collusion with foreign or overseas powers”, these are vaguely defined offences routinely used to punish dissent on the mainland. The intent of the law was made clear by the police’s own banners, which warned protesters that chanting or holding signs with calls for independence could constitute a crime.
The new law is extraordinarily wide-ranging and frighteningly vague in its wording. It allows people to be taken to the mainland, tried in party-controlled courts and locked up for life, for peacefully expressing political dissent. It appears to apply to anyone, whether or not they are a Hong Kong resident, and even if they are outside the region. Foreign companies will think much more carefully about doing business there.
The chief executive will be able to pick judges, and trials can be held without juries and behind closed doors. Hong Kong police have greater powers of surveillance. Chinese security services will be able to operate openly in Hong Kong, and will be immune from local laws. They will be tasked with “strengthening” the management of foreign NGOs and news organisations. Not only did Hong Kong’s people have no say in whether this legislation should be passed; they were not even allowed to see it until it had become law. While some support it, many feel despair.
As the prime minister told parliament, this is a clear and serious breach of the Sino-British joint declaration, a legally binding international treaty. It is also a breach of Hong Kong’s own mini-constitution, the Basic Law. Never have the people of Hong Kong been more in need of support. Britain has made a clear commitment to recognising its historical responsibilities by extending a path to citizenship for up to 3 million Hong Kong citizens with a right to a British Nationals (Overseas) passport, as it should have done years ago. A Magnitsky-style act targeting sanctions at individuals responsible for human rights abuses is due to be introduced this month, though it is not yet clear whether Chinese officials will be among the initial designations.
These are welcome developments, though the details of the “bespoke” immigration path will be critical. As the shadow foreign secretary said, it must not become a scheme simply for the wealthy. Many young activists will not be eligible: asylum claims must be considered sympathetically.
And it should be a cause of shame as well as regret that there was not a more forceful response to the earlier erosion of Hong Kong’s freedoms, that countries have been poor at pulling together in challenging Beijing, and that the US response to China still veers between reasoned opposition, nationalist hawkishness and Donald Trump’s transactional approach. Though China is set upon a course of increasing repression under Xi Jinping, greater international solidarity and willingness to challenge Beijing might have helped Hong Kong.
Though protesters scattered funeral joss papers on Wednesday in mourning for the Hong Kong they knew, they have not given up. They have the courage to defend their beliefs. Others must stand with them.