On 29 March 2019, The Fugitive Offenders and Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Legislation (Amendment) Bill was proposed in Hong Kong. The controversial extradition bill would have enabled the transfer of fugitives to mainland China for the first time.
This proposed legislation sparked huge controversy and saw nearly two million people take to the streets to demonstrate against the legislation. Protesters said the bill undermined Hong Kong’s democracy and violated the one country, two systems constitutional principle. This was instated back in 1997, when the city was handed back from British rule. Protesters argued that the bill was just another attempt by China to tighten its grip around Hong Kong, and a push to erode its autonomy.
As a result of increasingly violent protests in the city, on 4 September, Hong Kong’s Leader, Carrie Lam announced that the bill would be withdrawn.
However, now, partly in response to the protests in June of last year, China’s ruling body, the National People’s Congress (NPC) has now authorised the drafting of national security legislation.
While full details are yet to be released, the new law will reportedly tackle “secession, subversion, terrorism and foreign interference”. This has been met with shock and despondency from Hongkongers, who are well aware that these charges are used within the mainland to silence and imprison those who challenge the government.
The new laws would also permit the operation of “national security organs of the central people’s government” within Hong Kong.
Critics of the bill, of which there are many, say that these measures breach the Sino-British Joint Declaration signed in 1984. It also violates the agreement made in 1997, to maintain Hong Kong’s status as a semi-autonomous region.
Meanwhile, the British government is facing pressure to form an alliance to tackle the issue. Ministers and former foreign secretaries argue that the government still has a moral and legal obligation to Hong Kong’s citizens.
Hong Kong returned to China from the UK in 1997, under the agreement that it would retain semi-autonomy as a Special Administrative Region. Through a mini-constitution called the Basic Law, Hong Kong was entitled to freedoms not permitted in mainland China. These freedoms included freedom of assembly, press and association, as well as an independent judiciary.
The Basic Law does include Article 23, which outlines national security laws proscribing “treason, secession, sedition [and] subversion” against the Chinese government. However, it has never been enacted. This is precisely due to fears that enacting such laws would greatly erode the autonomy and independence of the city. Now citizens raise these fears once again, as Beijing’s national security law is widely expected to come into effect in September.
Concerns about what this means for the future of the city deepened after a press conference held prior to the Executive Council meeting. Addressing the looming national security law, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam told the media that people would have “freedom to say whatever they want to say” for “the time being”. In addition to this she added that when it comes to the right to protest, “rights and freedoms are not absolute”.
Citizens in Hong Kong have understandably voiced distress that the law will allow the Chinese government to curtail their freedoms, under the guise of defending national security.
And, while some such as Rong Ying, Vice President of the China Institute of International Studies have said that this law is the “beginning of a new Hong Kong,” Senior Researcher Maya Wang from Human Rights Watch has said that it signals the “end”.
Reflecting on how the legislation will change the core democratic values held within the city, Claudia Mo, pro-democracy Hong Kong Legislator said: “It is definitely the start of a new but sad chapter for Hong Kong. Hong Kong as we know it is finally dead”.
Dennis Kwok, pro-democracy Hong-Kong legislator added: “This is the end of Hong Kong. Beijing, the Central People’s Government, has completely breached its promise to the Hong Kong people…They are completely walking back on their obligation”.
Meanwhile, Lord Patten, the last British Governor of Hong Kong called the legislation a “comprehensive assault on the city’s autonomy, rule of law, and fundamental freedoms”.
Urging China to “step back from the brink,” the UK government has condemned the legislation. Further to this, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab has insisted that the UK will not “turn a blind eye” to the emergence of a new Chinese dictatorship.
Priti Patel also voiced that she was “deeply concerned” by the situation, adding: “We will continue to defend the rights and freedoms of the people of Hong Kong”. As a result, on Sunday 29 May, the Minister announced that the government would be providing a “path to citizenship” to Hongkongers eligible for a BN(O) passport.
Although currently those with the passport can apply to visit the UK without a visa for up to 6 months, new proposals would extend this period to 12 months. At present there are 300,000 holders of the passport, however, 2.9 million citizens are eligible.
Meanwhile, some have called for the government to go a step further and provide full citizenship to Hongkongers with BN(O) passports. Tom Tugendhat, Conservative Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee called for “full rights of British Nationals” to be “[recognised]”, while Shadow Foreign Secretary Lisa Nandy said the government needed to “step up”.
Others have been more critical of the government’s approach. Highlighting the insufficient support provided to Hongkongers, Johnny Patterson, Chief Executive of Hong Kong Watch, called the UK’s response: “Limp, inane and could have been copied and pasted directly from their previous statements”.
Dr Jingan Young, Hong Kong-born Playwright and King’s College London Academic also expressed dissatisfaction with the government’s proposals: “This is the best they can come up with?” He said. “This is a worthless 12 month tourist visa unless he is saying if you live here for a year, UK will give you citizenship”.
“I have had every UK visa under the bloody sun. I’ve worked and studied here for 10 years (as a Hong Konger). I have no recourse to public funding. My life under Covid-19 is f***ed. Telling China you’re [going to] let a chosen few with BNO fuel your economy for 12 months is infuriating”.
And of course, there are millions of young people who have been born into the freedom of Hong Kong, who are not eligible for this passport.
Further to the proposals announced by Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, seven former foreign secretaries have come together in a cross-party initiative calling for a global alliance to stop the Chinese government.
Together, Jeremy Hunt, David Miliband, Jack Straw, William Hague, Malcolm Rifkind, David Owen and Margaret Beckett have raised their concerns about China’s “flagrant breach” of Sino-British agreements through drafting the national security legislation. They have subsequently suggested that an international contact group should be formed, similar to the one formed in the 1990’s to deal with the crisis in the former Yugoslavia.
In a letter addressed to the Minister, collectively they said: “When it comes to Hong Kong’s autonomy under the ‘one country, two systems’ model, many of our international partners continue to take their cue from the British government. I’m sure you would agree, as a co-signatory of the Sino-British joint declaration the UK must be seen to be leading and coordinating the international response to this crisis and ensuring the integrity of the treaty lodged at the United Nations in 1985 and one country, two systems”.
As reported by the BBC, according to a Downing Street spokesperson, the government is already playing a “leading role” with international partners in urging China to “think again”.
Responding to the UK government’s intent to provide access to BN(O) holders, the Chinese government has threatened “corresponding countermeasures”. At a press briefing on Friday 29 May, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Zhao Lijian warned that if the UK insisted “on unilaterally changing its practices” it would be violating international law. Further to this, he added: “We urge the related countries to respect China’s sovereignty [and] stop interfering in Hong Kong’s and China’s internal affairs”.
Some have argued that Britain is too reliant on China to fully commit to its stance on Hong Kong. Highlighting the UK’s dependency on China, a report by the Henry Jackson Society revealed that the UK is “strategically dependent” on the country for 229 categories of goods. This includes 57 categories that relate to critical infrastructure.
That being said, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has reportedly instructed civil servants to develop ‘Project Defend’. This initiative aims to diversify the UK’s imports and supply lines, driving the country away from reliance on “hostile foreign governments”.
It remains to be seen whether the UK government will deploy more aggressive action against China. However, one thing is certain, at this point in time, the UK is not doing enough to stand up for the freedom of Hong Kong citizens and protect the city’s democracy.