On June 30, 2020, following the approval of the National People’s Congress—China’s rubber-stamp parliament—a national security law came into effect in Hong Kong, circumventing the city's own legislature. Thus, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was able to impose a national security ruling on the city, reaching success after a failed attempt in 2003. The law aims to prevent and punish four new widely defined offences: secession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with foreign forces. These carry penalties of up to life imprisonment. It enabled the Chinese government to create a National Security Office in Hong Kong, allowing Chinese security officials to operate in the city outside the jurisdictions of local laws, and broadened police powers when dealing with national security cases.
The national security law is Beijing’s response to the 2019 anti-extradition bill protests that saw widespread pro-democracy demonstrations, paralysing one of Asia’s premier financial hubs. Indeed, since the national security law was enacted, many pro-democracy groups that animated the protests were disbanded to avoid jail sentences under the new law. Several other pro-democracy activists have since then left the city or announced that they would not stand anymore in future elections. Since it was implemented, the legislation has been used to arrest over 100 pro-democracy figures and it has had far reaching consequences on Hong Kong society.
These developments have left the pro-democracy camp in tatters. Firstly, the government postponed the September 2020 legislative elections to December 2021 due to COVID-19 concerns. Yet, critics saw in the prorogation a way to avoid an awkward defeat for the pro-Beijing camp, after the overwhelming pan-democratic victory in the District Council election in 2019. Later, in November 2020, the government disqualified four opposition lawmakers, contesting their loyalty, and thus causing the remaining pro-democracy lawmakers to resign, leaving the legislature without opposition. Afterwards, an oath-taking requirement, pledging allegiance to Beijing, has been introduced for officeholders, creating grounds for dismissal of those who refuse it.
However, the biggest crackdown against pro-democracy activists happened in January 2021, when 53 people were arrested under the national security law, for their participation in the primary of the legislative election. The explicit aim of the poll, avoiding division of the pan-democratic camp to gain most of the seats, thereby gridlocking the legislator, was judged to run afoul the national security law. On top of this, in March 2021 Beijing announced an overhaul of Hong Kong’s election system, with the aim of ensuring that only “patriots” will govern the city. The reform increased the powers of the Election Committee, a body filled with Beijing loyalists, reducing the share of directly elected seats in the Legislative Councils, introducing the presence of several screening committees, with a role for the police who are tasked to vet the potential candidates on national security grounds.
Furthermore, the introduction of the national security law has put basic rights such as press and academic freedom under serious strain. Indeed, the Hong Kong Press Freedom Index 2020 for Journalists has hit a record low. Since last year, the owner and the senior executives of the last pro-democracy print newspaper were jailed, accounts were frozen, and reporters were arrested, forcing the newspaper to close on June 23. The new hardliners in Hong Kong have continuously targeted people for their social media posts, interfered in the independence of the city public broadcaster, and taken new guidelines to censor movies based on safeguarding national security.
Meanwhile, pro-democracy professors have been sacked from their roles, national security education has been introduced into schools, and teachers found guilty of expressing pro-independence views to their pupils have been dismissed.
The independence of the long-cherished Hong Kong judicial system is under pressure by frequent attacks from mainland officials. The national security law gives the government the ability to order closed trials, to shift judges, and in some cases allows for the Beijing judiciary to take over control of proceedings. Most strikingly, Carrie Lam, the Hong Kong Chief Executive, has claimed that Hong Kong does not have the separation of powers and independent judiciary, as otherwise stated in the Basic Law, the Hong Kong constitution.
Unsurprisingly, all of this has had consequences for Hong Kong’s status as a leading financial centre. In a survey of U.S. businesses in May 2021, 42 percent of the respondents said they were considering leaving the city due to the security law. This comes after dozens of companies have moved their regional headquarters away from Hong Kong since 2019. Moreover, more people left Hong Kong in 2020 than any year since the global financial crises. The reform of the British National Overseas passport by the UK government, which earlier created a stable path toward UK citizenship for the passport holder, is likely to sustain this trend into the future. However, pro-Beijing voices assure that once the pandemic is over, given the long-term plan to integrate the city into a 70-million-person greater bay area, together with Shenzhen and Macau, economic growth and business opportunities will be restored.
One year after the implementation of the national security law, Beijing seems determined to risk the decay of the once-flourishing international city to fend off the pan-democratic challenge to its rule. With the One Country Two Systems principle seriously undermined, it appears that Xi Jinping will not be stopped by international sanctions or condemnations in pursuing what are the core interests of the CCP.