June 30th signaled a new era in Hong Kong, one in which the mainland Chinese government will be able to legally and arbitrarily quell any political dissent. Passing through the Chinese government’s highest legislative authority quickly and obscurely, a new national security law was enacted which has the potential to effectively eliminate any free expression mainland leadership perceives as a threat.
What’s the Primary Issue?
The national security law targets politically motivated activities such as advocacy for Hong Kong secession, attempts at subverting the mainland government’s authority, acts of terrorism, and collusion with foreign entities. Much of this is designed to limit Hong Kong’s autonomy, but what makes it especially troubling is how unclear everything is. Specifics as to what is constituted as unlawful are not given, meaning that legal officials are essentially given a blank check to investigate and prosecute Hong Kong citizens at will. This issue has led many to speculate the government in Beijing will attempt to completely expunge any elements which question its dominance over the region.
Legal Authorities Have Much More Power
The new law allows for the Beijing government to deploy its own law enforcement agents within the special administrative region. The Office for Safeguarding National Security is currently being developed, which utilizes mainland law enforcement, but is not subject to any local legal authority, meaning it’s impossible to charge officials with misconduct. Similarly, the Committee for Safeguarding National Security has been established within the Hong Kong government which serves a similar function, but is primarily staffed by Hong Kong citizens. However, power to shape the committee’s decisions and structure is heavily dependent on the influence of a Chinese government advisor. The committee is also not subject to the local court system, does not have to disclose budgeting information, and can appoint or remove individual case judges without outside approval. In addition, law enforcement of any kind within Hong Kong no longer requires court orders to search property, prevent travel, or confiscate people’s assets.
One of the most unsettling aspects of the new law are jurisdictional changes. Prosecution applies to not only Hong Kong citizens, but to anyone critical of the Chinese government who might visit Hong Kong temporarily. This has caused considerable issues for journalists, who are incredibly vulnerable to legal consequences, which has prompted several media organizations to relocate their staff out of Hong Kong. Violators of the new law can also be extradited to mainland China for legal proceedings, where it’s likely they won’t receive a fair trial.
A plethora of political organizations have ceased functioning, many activists have fled, and countless ordinary citizens have deactivated social media accounts for fear of prosecution. Law enforcement has largely been relegated to the Chinese central government, with no real checks on power and with few human rights guarantees. In the face of this, it’s unlikely Hong Kong will retain its current identity and for practical reasons, relationships, whether they be personal or business related, might have to be reconsidered.