JOCELYN CHEY. Hong Kong’s Fate in the Balance

A national security bill for Hong Kong will be put to the National People’s Congress (NPC) now meeting in Beijing. This aims to end an impasse in Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, which has never passed local legislation to enact Article 23 of the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini constitution, to which the citizens of the Special Administrative Region (SAR) remain adamantly opposed.

More protests are inevitable in the lead up to the anniversary of 4 June 1989 (which China calls an “incident,” and others, a “massacre”).

Wang Chen, Vice Chairman of the Standing Committee, told deputies at the opening meeting of the NPC on 22 May that draft legislation on Hong Kong security had been submitted to the top legislature and was expected to be enacted within weeks. Beijing is strengthening collection of information and evidence of threats to national security in the SAR. Hong Kong delegates to the NPC told the Global Times that the proposed new law did not contravene the “One Country Two Systems” under which the SAR is guaranteed a high degree of autonomy.

Article 23 of Hong Kong’s Basic Law reads:

“The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region shall enact laws on its own to prohibit any act of treason, secession, sedition, subversion against the Central People’s Government, or theft of state secrets, to prohibit foreign political organisations or bodies from conducting political activities in the Region, and to prohibit political organisations or bodies of the Region from establishing ties with foreign political organisations or bodies.”

Even before the return of Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, this was the most controversial part of the Basic Law. The wording was strengthened after the founding of the Hong Kong Alliance for the Support of Democracy in China led by Martin Lee and Szeto Wah in 1989, but it was never enshrined in local legislation as originally intended.

Last British Governor, Chris Patten, did not make protection against the consequences of Article 23 a priority for action during his term of office, and in 2016, when it was clear that proposals to enact the provisions had provoked violent local protests, he said, “One reason why I didn’t think we needed to do anything about Article 23 was that I thought that subversion was something which I was unlikely to encounter as governor of Hong Kong. It has a sort of rather quaint Leninist tone to it and pretty well since the 17th century – Guy Fawkes and all that – subversion hasn’t been a big issue in British politics.” How wrong he was! This weekend Patten told The Times that the proposed legislation is a “death knell.”

Treason, secession, subversion, theft of state secrets, are all serious matters, but an autocratic government may arbitrarily define them in an ad-hoc manner without the right of challenge. This ambiguity concerns Hong Kong and the international community. Freedom of speech is guaranteed under Hong Kong’s Basic Law, but in future criticism of Beijing may be illegal, those who share their concerns with other countries may be arrested, and, if the court standards of the mainland are applied in Hong Kong along with the proposed legislation, all cases involving “national security” could be heard behind closed doors with no right of review.

While Vice Premier Han Zheng sought to calm fears over the weekend, telling Hong Kong delegates to the NPC that only a few people would be targeted by the legislation, former Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying said Beijing could authorise Hong Kong to establish an intelligence agency like the Special Branch of the old British administration. The SB effectively countered corruption and Triad (secret society) activities, but also housed British MI6 agents working in China. When it was disbanded in 1997, local officers transferred to the new government’s Security Wing. It seems that Beijing’s proposed new agency will revive a similar intelligence function monitoring local and international activities.

Most Western democracies have security laws against terrorism. The Morrison government has introduced acts to guard against what it regards as an increasingly threatening international environment. Each case has been hotly debated, and all are subject to regular review by parliamentary committees and the Independent National Security Monitor. Such mechanisms do not exist in China.

With this new legislation Beijing will first target the group that state media call the “Gang of Four”, reverting to Cultural Revolution terminology. The group includes former Chief Secretary Anson Chan and Martin Lee Chu-ming, founder of the Democratic Party, both of whom have visited Australia to talk about threats to Hong Kong’s future. The other two are Albert Ho Chun-yan, former chairman of the Democratic Party, and Jimmy Lai Chee-ying, founder of Next Media. Ho was attacked and beaten by unidentified thugs in September last year, and in the same month Lai’s home was firebombed. Eighty-one-year-old Martin Lee was arrested this April with fourteen other pro-democracy figures, on charges of illegal assembly.

On 23 May Foreign Minister Marise Payne and her British and Canadian counterparts issued a joint statement registering “deep concern” about the proposed Chinese security legislation. The statement refers to the Joint Declaration that guarantees Hong Kong a high degree of autonomy and states that provisions of the United Nations conventions on human rights will remain in force.

This weekend, in spite of corona virus regulations, Hong Kong citizens have taken their protests onto the streets. Over the next fortnight there will undoubtedly be more civil disobedience, probably culminating in observance of the anniversary of the Fourth of June. How to demonstrate firm and effective support for the people of Hong Kong – who include around 100,000 Australian citizens – will be a test of our already-strained relations with Beijing.


Jocelyn Chey is Visiting Professor at the University of Sydney and Adjunct Professor at Western Sydney University and UTS. She formerly held diplomatic posts in China and Hong Kong. She is a member of the Order of Australia (AM) and a Fellow of the Australian Institute of International Affairs.

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8 Responses to JOCELYN CHEY. Hong Kong’s Fate in the Balance

  1. Avatar Kien Choong says:

    Hong Kongers have much greater freedoms than Palestinians, and will most likely to continue enjoying those freedoms whereas what basic freedoms the Palestinians have continue to be whittled away by illegitimate attempts to take over Palestinian territories.

    It is hard to understand why Australia pays so much attention to Hong Kong, and so little to the Palestinians.

  2. Avatar Gavin O'Brien says:

    History tells us that Hong Kong was part of China until forceably taken over by British trading interests in the 19th Century. Unlike most Chinese, ‘Hong Kongers’ are mostly well educated and would have a westernized view of history, hence the push back against authoritarianism. My guess is that many, with foreign passports and connections will flee Hong Kong to Singapore or Taiwan , taking with them their expertise and wealth . China may well come to regret their surge of “Nationalism”.

  3. Avatar Warren Dawson says:

    In 1996 the GDP of China was only seven times bigger than Hong Kong’s, and it relied on Hong Kong for access to markets and money. In other words, it was too weak to avoid the “one country, two systems” nonsense that no Western country would ever have demeaned itself to accept at the time. Skip forward to 2020, where China’s GDP is now 40 times greater than Hong Kong’s, and that is only nominal GDP – in terms of GDP-PPP, the preferred measure by the IMF and World Bank – the gap is much bigger still, to the effect that Hong Kong is now irrelevant to China’s economy.

    That is the present state of play, but to understand the symbolic significance of Hong Kong to China it is necessary to go back to 1841, when the British said they wanted to trade with China but would only pay for Chinese goods with opium. When China refused, Britain seized Hong Kong and thus began the “century of humiliation” for China. Failure to grasp the historical and symbolic significance of that event leads to failure – as this neo-colonialist article fails – to appreciate the fact that China will never allow foreign interference in its relationship with Hong Kong. Ever.

  4. Avatar Teow Loon Ti says:

    Ms Chey,
    I would be more sympathetic towards the Hong Kongers if they had kept to a Gandhian style protest. Instead we saw destruction of public and private property, arson and physical attacks on China supporters on television. Until now, the Chinese government had been extraordinarily patient. They are about midway through the one country two systems arrangement. Wouldn’t it be wiser for them to prepare themselves for integration into the Chinese system? Is it wise to demand independence on a matter so sensitive to the mother country? And why are protesters carrying American flags?
    Teow Loon Ti

  5. Avatar John Wallace says:

    It is worth recalling Chris Patten’s comments to the Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents’ Club on 25 November 2016:
    “It would be dishonest, dishonourable and reckless of somebody like me, to pretend that the case for democracy should be mixed up with an argument about the independence of Hong Kong – something which is not going to happen, something which dilutes support for democracy, and something which has led to all sorts of antics which should not take place in a mature society aiming to be a full democracy.”
    Alas, his advice was not followed, and Hong Kong’s suffering is in large part a consequence of that. Already, some students talk of taking their latest protest to the end, if necessary.
    If we are to avoid a Masada-like solution, rather than unrealistically raising expectations of external support – remember Syria, it would be better to support international efforts for an honest broker to help protest movement leaders fully comprehend the reality of their situation and ours.

  6. Avatar Anthony Pun says:

    A comment from private ex-HKer (Ms MC)
    “They are practicing Terror, NOT Democracy, my Primary/ High school friends said (referring to the violence toward fellow HKers)
    Let me sum up the whole matter. It is a child who wanted to disowned his Mother and beg foreigners to punish the Mother. It is time that the Mother put back some restrictions. Put back Law and order that all other countries has but HK never have because HK has always been a safe city . We all embraced this law and hope that Article 23 will be passed asap to cap all those people chanting
    for their type of freedom.”

  7. Avatar Richard England says:

    It was once clear that Hong Kongers’ interest lay with the West. Hong Kong was a British colony, the West wished to open up China, and the policy of China’s weak government was to maintain a (weak) blockade around itself. Historically, Hong Kongers’ made their money as pedlars of contraband defying a weak and inward-focused Chinese government.

    Now the situation is reversed. It is China that wants free trade, and the West’s policy is to economically blockade China. It is as clear as day that the interest of Hong Kongers is to maintain their skills as blockade runners, but use them in the opposite direction. Unfortunately, many Hong Kongers are stuck with their old loyalties, act against their own interests in a changed world, and act against the interests of the smart Hong Kongers.

  8. Avatar Peter Love says:

    To a layman, the form of words seem reasonable enough, given Hong Kong is part of China. The reference to foreign political organisations may be problematic though.

    The law can hardly be silent on this issue. What would you propose, Jocelyn?

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