In Brief

Is Hong Kong Still Autonomous? What to Know About China’s New Laws

Beijing’s new national security legislation could effectively end Hong Kong’s promised semiautonomy.

The Chinese government has moved to quash Hong Kong’s prodemocracy movement with its approval of new national security legislation this week. It has sparked fears of a crackdown and raised questions about whether Hong Kong should still be treated by the rest of the world as semiautonomous.

What is in the national security legislation?

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China’s legislative body, the National People’s Congress, approved the introduction of new legislation that will be drafted over the next two months and is expected to take effect in September. The laws would effectively prevent, stop, and punish any acts occurring within Hong Kong that are aimed at splitting China, subverting state power, organizing and carrying out terrorist activities, or otherwise seriously endangering national security. Such acts include activities by foreign or external forces that interfere in Hong Kong’s affairs.

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The legislation will eventually be inserted into Annex III of Hong Kong’s Basic Law and promptly promulgated and implemented by the Hong Kong government, bypassing Hong Kong’s Legislative Council.

To make certain these new laws will actually safeguard national security, the decision also authorizes national security organs to set up institutions in Hong Kong “as necessary.” The Ministry of State Security, the Ministry of Public Security, and secret police organizations that rule mainland China but have been formally precluded from Hong Kong until now can begin to operate openly in Hong Kong.

Why is Beijing making such a bold move now?

Beijing is desperate. The “one country, two systems” framework in Hong Kong has been steadily slipping. The Chinese Communist Party appears to have calculated that unless it halts protests by the increasingly dissatisfied Hong Kong population, local affairs will get out of hand. Last year’s huge anti-government demonstrations were a great embarrassment to Chinese leader Xi Jinping and the party.

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Moreover, Hong Kong’s democratic electoral government has continued to progress despite Beijing’s maneuvers. Minority democratic politicians in Hong Kong’s Legislative Council have stalemated pro-government legislation. And in light of their overwhelming victory in district elections last November, democratic candidates could win a majority in September’s Legislative Council elections.

Two riot police officers stand by a group of detained protesters who sit on the ground.
Riot police detain people during a protest in Hong Kong as the Legislative Council debates a law that bans insulting China’s national anthem. Isaac Lawrence/AFP/Getty Images

The arrival of COVID-19 this past winter gave Beijing and the Hong Kong government, led by Chief Executive Carrie Lam, some relief from the rallies against them, but the government’s success fighting the virus now promises renewed protests as concerns about social distancing diminish.

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If protests continue, Beijing could postpone or cancel the September elections, or take steps to disqualify and perhaps prosecute popular democratic candidates, which will infuriate people and lead to more demonstrations. Acting now to end the increasingly threatening democratic ferment is a high-stakes gamble, but Beijing apparently sees it as better than the alternative of hoping that the local government, on its own, will finally restore public trust and social peace.

What does this mean for Hong Kong?

The new legislation will likely dramatically alter life in Hong Kong. Mass arrests could occur, well beyond the roughly nine thousand that have been made within the past year. Freedom of expression and other political and civil liberties will be curbed. The fear and hostility engendered by the local police’s repressive measures this past year, and the unfortunate violence and vandalism that those tactics and the failure to seriously investigate them inspired, will soon be replaced by the fear of Beijing’s secret police.

The “high degree of autonomy” that former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping promised the United Kingdom and Hong Kongers in the 1980s has collapsed. This will likely hurt the business and financial community, as well as damage educational and social systems and the media. There will be an especially heavy toll on younger generations for economic and political reasons. Tensions within the community will be exacerbated as many people will welcome the return of stability. Quite a few people and quite a lot of money will leave Hong Kong. This could weaken Hong Kong as a global financial hub, but will not demolish its status as such.

What has been the international reaction?

As expected, the U.S. government has reacted strongly. President Donald J. Trump said Hong Kong can no longer be deemed sufficiently autonomous from China to warrant the special treatment it has enjoyed under U.S. law. Trump said the United States will take steps to revoke Hong Kong’s special trade status and sanction Chinese and Hong Kong officials. But how much of its special status will be lost and over what period remains to be seen.

More surprising has been the vigorous response by the previously timid United Kingdom. It not only joined Australia, Canada, and the United States in a strong joint statement of protest but also announced that it is preparing to extend visa opportunities to hundreds of thousands of Hong Kong holders of British National Overseas passports. UK officials have indicated that if Beijing fails to relent, such passport holders may be allowed to live and work in the United Kingdom and eventually obtain UK citizenship.

The European Union has expressed “grave concern” over Beijing’s action, and Japan has also voiced opposition. The forthcoming Group of Seven (G7) meeting could mobilize further pressures against Beijing. Reactions from the United States and others will surely not sway Beijing from its current course but they could make the new legislation less ambitious in articulation, if not in implementation.

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