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Hong Kong and the National Security Law

Hong Kong History and the Joint Declaration

Hong Kong was a British colony from 1842 until the UK transferred sovereignty over Hong Kong to the People’s Republic of China on 1 July 1997, after which it became a Special Administrative Region of China. In preparation of the handover, in 1984 Great Britain and China agreed the Joint Declaration on the Question of Hong Kong (Joint Declaration).

The Joint Declaration enshrined the concept of “one country, two systems” under which Hong Kong would enjoy a “high degree of autonomy”, maintaining, for example its own legal system, judiciary and borders. This system is preserved in the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s constitutional document, that come into force after the 1997 handover of power.

The Joint Declaration does not contain any penalties for China if it breaches the agreement or any sort of dispute resolution process.

National Security Law passed

On 30 June 2020, the People’s Republic of China’s parliament passed a new National Security Law for Hong Kong, bypassing the territory’s own Legislative Council.

China has been alarmed by the mass protests in 2014 and 2019 in Hong Kong that brought hundreds of thousands of pro-democracy supporters out on the streets, and the success of pro-democracy politicians in the island’s 2019 local elections.

Before the imposition of the law there had already been concerns that the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ principle was being steadily eroded. The UK Government catalogued such fears in its six-monthly reports on Hong Kong, as did the Foreign Affairs Committee in reports on Hong Kong and China in 2015 and 2019.

Overview of National Security Law

The National Security Law criminalises any act of:

  • secession – breaking away from the country;
  • subversion – undermining the power or authority of the central government;
  • terrorism – using violence or intimidation against people; and
  • collusion with foreign or external forces.

The law established a new Beijing-led security office in Hong Kong, with its own law enforcement personnel – neither of which would come under the local authority’s jurisdiction. Hong Kong’s political leader, called the Chief Executive, now has the power to appoint judges to hear national security cases. Beijing will also have power over how the law should be interpreted, rather than any Hong Kong judicial or policy body. If the law conflicts with any Hong Kong law, the Beijing law takes priority.

The National Security Law also states it applies to anyone regardless of where they live in the world or if they are a citizen and/or resident of Hong Kong.

UK Government response to law

The UK Government has responded with three main actions since the National Security Law was passed in Hong Kong.

First, it suspended the UK’s extradition treaty with Hong Kong.

Second, it extended the embargo on certain military items already imposed on mainland China (in response to the 1989 Tiananmen Square repression), to Hong Kong. In June 2019 it had already restricted the sale of crowd control equipment to Hong Kong.

Third, it announced it would open a new visa route to people from Hong Kong who have British National (Overseas) – ‘BN(O)’ – status and their close family members. The Hong Kong British National (Overseas) visa launched on 31 January 2021.

The most recent figures released by the Home Office in May 2022 state that there have been a total of 123,400 applications for the BN(O) route since its introduction up to the end of March 2022. In this same period 113,742 visas were granted. In addition, in 2021 provisional management information shows that 8,350 BN(O) and/or Hong Kong Special Administrative Region passport holders were granted “leave outside the rules” at the UK border. This latter category are largely people granted leave before the scheme came into operation.

China’s response to criticism

In May 2020, China’s Embassy in the UK put out a statement on Hong Kong’s national security legislation saying it is “purely China’s internal affair, which no foreign country has the right to interfere in”.

It described the 2019 protests as “increasingly rampant activities by the “Hong Kong independence” elements, and radical and separatist force”, and that there was “escalating violence and terrorist activities”.

The statement also said the “One Country, Two Systems” and the “high degree of autonomy” envisaged under the system had been “implemented faithfully” since Hong Kong’s handover.

UK Supreme Court justices step down from Hong Kong Court roles.

In March 2022 the two justices of the UK Supreme Court serving on the Hong Kong Court of Final Appeal: Lord Reed, President of the Supreme Court, and Lord Hodge, both announced they were resigning from the Hong Kong court with immediate effect. The Foreign Secretary, Liz Truss, and Dominic Raab, the Deputy Prime Minister, Lord Chancellor and Justice Secretary both welcomed the announcement, saying the decision had been reached after discussions between them and Lord Reed.

Recent events in Hong Kong

Legislative elections held

Elections to Hong Kong’s Legislative Council (LegCo) were held in December 2021.

In March 2021 China’s legislative body passed significant changes to Hong Kong’s electoral rules that tightened its control over the city.

The number of directly elected seats in the LegCo was cut almost by half, and prospective Council Members had to be vetted by a “candidate qualification review committee” to ensure that only “patriotic” figures can run for positions of power.

The changes also expanded and gave more powers to the Election Committee  “a separate group that heavily skews pro-Beijing”. Usually, their main role is to choose the Chief Executive, but now, for the first time in years, they also have seats in LegCo.

Pro-Beijing candidates swept to victory in the December LegCo elections. A local news outlet HK01 found that 82 of the 90 seats were won by members from the pro-establishment and pro-Beijing camp. The turnout was 30.2%, the lowest since the city’s return from British to Chinese rule.

The Foreign Secretaries of the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, along with the US Secretary of State, issued a statement following the announcement of the LegCo election results, in which they expressed their “grave concern over the erosion of democratic elements of the Special Administrative Region’s electoral system”. They added “candidates with diverse political views have contested elections in Hong Kong. Yesterday’s election has reversed this trend”, and that they remained “gravely concerned at the wider chilling effect of the National Security Law and the growing restrictions on freedom of speech and freedom of assembly, which are being felt across civil society”.

China’s Liaison Office in Hong Kong described the election as a “successful practice of democracy with Hong Kong characteristics”.

Lee becomes new Chief Executive

On 8 May 2022, John Lee was named Hong Kong’s new Chief Executive, after a closed voting process in which he was the sole candidate.

His appointment is widely seen “as a move by the Chinese government to tighten its grip on the city”. He is reported to have “pro-Beijing hard-line views”. Kenneth Chan, a political scientist at Hong Kong Baptist University, says “he has built a reputation as a tough guy and a law enforcer that would not like to listen to others’ views, be accommodating, or be measured. Whatever tasks his superiors assign to him, he will get them done”.

Mr Lee is former deputy police commissioner in the territory, who oversaw the sometimes-violent crackdowns on pro-democracy protestors in 2019.

He backed the National Security Law when it was introduced saying it would help restore “stability from chaos“.

Crackdown on protestors continues

In April 2022 Hong Kong pro-democracy activist and radio DJ Tam Tak-chi was sentenced to jail for 40 months after being found guilty of seditious speech and other crimes the month before.

Tam is reported to be the first person to be tried for sedition in Hong Kong since its 1997 handover to China.

On 7 June 2022, the largest national security case involving 47 defendants was sent for trial at Hong Kong’s High Court, after 15 months in pre-trial procedures during which most of the defendants were remanded in custody.

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