China announced on May 21 that it would bypass the Hong Kong Legislative Council (LegCo) to pass the “Hong Kong national security law.”
The timing of the law is likely aimed at taking advantage of the distraction offered by the COVID-19 pandemic, limiting the resurgence of street protests.
The legislation will act as a base for increased curbs on freedom of speech, activism.
Increased control by Beijing on Hong Kong’s judicial affairs will worsen tensions between the US, China.
Civil unrest will increase in the near term, however, the implementation of restrictions will dampen anti-government activism over a longer period of time.
Travel to Hong Kong can continue while adhering to security precautions regarding civil unrest, crime, and protests.
China announced on May 21 that it would bypass the Hong Kong Legislative Council (LegCo) to pass the “Hong Kong national security law.” The legislation seeks to criminalize secessionist or subversive activity against Beijing, terrorism, and foreign interference in the city. The draft bill was presented to Beijing’s National People’s Congress (NPC) on May 22 and a vote is set for the end of the body’s two-sessions meeting on May 28.
Similar legislation was introduced in Hong Kong’s LegCo in 2003, known as Article 23, but was tabled after its introduction prompted hundreds of thousands of individuals to march in protest on July 1 of the same year. The date marks Hong Kong’s handover from the UK to China in 1997. Small-scale commemorative events were held on this day prior to 2003, while events in the years that followed saw participation in the high thousands.
Assessments & Forecast
Introduction of national security law informed by failure to control 2019 protests, distraction offered by COVID-19 pandemic
The legislation represents China’s most overt and assertive attempt to increase control over the special administrative region since its 1997 handover. As the NPC is largely symbolic, an overwhelming majority is expected and the law will take effect in the coming months, although an exact timeline for its implementation remains unclear. Regardless, the development will stoke prevailing anti-China sentiment in the city that fueled the anti-government protest campaign in the past year. This will be compounded by long-standing sensitivities among pan-democrats over contentious national security legislation, particularly Article 23, that would strengthen Beijing’s influence in the city if enacted.
The timing of the move is informed by multiple factors. The anti-government protest campaign that emerged in 2019 was accompanied by high levels of violence, with officials labeling certain incidents part of the resistance as “terrorism” and citing these as cause for stronger national security laws. Meanwhile, the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and associated restrictions on mass gatherings have significantly impacted the protest campaign in recent months, with participation numbers sinking to the high dozens to low hundreds and the tempo of events decreasing. In this light, Beijing is likely using the global health crisis as a distraction and perceives the lull in protests as an opportunity to assert its control.
More broadly, the protest campaign and the authorities’ failure to placate anti-government activists highlighted obstacles to local governance that were likely to resurface after the pandemic abated. This was especially likely in the event that Article 23 was re-tabled in the LegCo, a possibility that officials have often hinted at, and given ongoing efforts by Beijing to attain control over the city’s affairs. Thus, the cognizance of these obstacles to city authorities’ governance likely contributed to Beijing’s decision to supersede the LegCo.
Further, the timing of the legislation can be attributed, in part, to the LegCo elections slated to be held in September. The pro-democracy camp’s significant win in the District Council polls in November 2019 spoke to the high levels of anti-China and anti-government sentiment, while a rebound in the campaign in recent weeks raised the potential for reigniting anti-government sentiment that could jeopardize the pro-establishment camp’s electoral prospects.
Legislation to provide grounds for severe curbs on protest activity, freedom of speech in near-to-medium term
There are a number of implications arising from the passage of the legislation in its current form later in the week. First, such a development will signal a clear change to Beijing’s “one country, two systems” policy, given that residents of Hong Kong will now be on par with citizens of mainland China in the way they are treated for criticizing the ruling dispensation. This will feed into fears of diminished judicial independence and significantly increased curbs on speech and protest freedoms. Moreover, in light of Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s statement that the local government will comply with the integration of the national security legislation, the passage of the draft bill will also indicate an increased willingness on the part of the Hong Kong government to cede issues such as criminal laws to Beijing. This opens the space for the secession of other powers that were earlier held by the local government.
In practical terms, the enforcement of the legislation will pave the way for the preemptive detention of protesters under allegedly vaguely defined security provisions, as well as their incarceration without trial for extended periods of time over the coming months. Moreover, the local government will retain the imperative to pick up anti-government activists for questioning and authorize their remand, if necessary, simply on the basis of their online activity or statements in other mediums. At the same time, Chinese security forces may also expand their monitoring activities within the city in the near-to-medium term, likely through liaison with the Hong Kong Police Force and surveillance units part of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) garrison in the city. However, Beijing is not likely to increase its on-ground security presence through the mobilizing of additional PLA troops, given the empowerment of the HKPF should suffice in maintaining law and order and considering the negative signal such a move would send to the international community in terms of violating the 1997 agreement.
Developments will exacerbate US-China tensions, impact Hong Kong’s status as regional financial hub over long-term
Once the terms of the legislation begin to be enforced over the coming months, there is an increased risk of retaliatory action by Washington DC, either through the revocation of the special status accorded to the territory under US law or by the increasing of sanctions on Chinese entities and interests. It is also possible that US action will comprise a combination of these measures for maximum effect, more so given the government and Congress’ convergent opinions regarding strict actions against purported Chinese belligerence. The primary effect of this will be on the annual trade of goods and services between the US and Hong Kong, estimated to be worth approximately 67 billion USD, with Hong Kong likely to lose its preferential tariff rate of zero percent on US goods. Additionally, visa regimes for US businesses may also change, with investment patterns likely to be impacted as well. While countries like the UK may not have such a drastic reaction, their policy alignment with the US on certain trade matters, and Chinese counter-measures over perceptions of foreign interference in internal matters, will, over the next half-decade, make China a less attractive option for global business houses, should economic measures by both sides kick in.
With respect to the broader US-China relationship, the introduction of national security legislation will emerge as the latest sticking point impeding rapprochement on issues, such as the ongoing trade conflict and China’s actions in the South China Sea (SCS) and Taiwan Strait. This stands to precipitate a new round of tariffs and counter-measures by either side, with Washington likely to increase pressure on Beijing by advocating closer defense ties and further cooperation with Taiwan. Simultaneously, it will aim to oppose Chinese agendas on other fronts by backing opposition from Vietnam, Malaysia, and other claimants involved in territorial disputes with China in the SCS, and providing support for investigations into China’s alleged role in concealing the spread of COVID-19 in its territory, among others. Overall, the next two years will see increased friction between the two countries, with aspects like China’s increasing control on Hong Kong and generally growing isolationism across the world acting as fuel.
Civil unrest to peak in coming weeks, though national security legislation likely to cripple anti-government movement over extended period
Thousands of anti-government activists protested across Hong Kong Island on May 24 in reaction to the proposed law. Per reports, the protest saw similar methods to those seen in the 2019 campaign, including the lack of an organizer for the event itself and activists dispersing to other parts of the city to evade police action. This is a preliminary indication that protests over the legislation will increase in the near term off the back of heightened anti-China and anti-government sentiments, with elevated turnouts and a high risk of violent clashes.
Further, these tensions will bolster attendance at events on highly sensitive days, such as the annual June 4 vigil to mark the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown and the July 1 pro-democracy march. Further, June 9 and 12 mark two notable events in the 2019 campaign, with the former featuring protests involving at least one million individuals and the latter seeing a notable clash in Admiralty between protesters and police.
Radical sections of protesters may also look to target Chinese installations in the city, including the Hong Kong Liaison Office, during this period, with vandalism and attacks on police facilities also likely to see an uptick. However, as previously mentioned, the implementation of the national security law will cripple the anti-government movement to a great extent over the long term, with police officials likely to arrest notable activists and organizers prior to events being held. The wholesale imprisonment of anti-government protesters based on opinions espoused on fora like social media will also result in the curtailment of anti-government dissent.
Travel to Hong Kong can continue while adhering to security precautions regarding civil unrest, crime, and protests.
Those operating or residing in Hong Kong are advised to avoid nonessential travel near protests and further maintain heightened vigilance throughout the city due to the potential for continued demonstrations and unrest. This may include the use of teargas and rubber bullets by police, the hurling of incendiary objects such as petrol bombs, or the throwing of bricks and projectiles by protesters.
Avoid the vicinity of police stations, checkpoints, or other security installations as they remain susceptible to arson attacks or vandalism.
Maintain particular vigilance around government buildings on Hong Kong Island which are often used as protest sites, such as the LegCo Building, Central Government Complex, Hong Kong Police Headquarters, Hong Kong Liaison Office, and Chief Executive’s Office.
Avoid carrying any sensitive material either on electronic devices or clothing that puts forward controversial political opinions, particularly anti-Beijing stances, when crossing over by land due to heightened security checks.
MAX Security has strong on-ground capabilities for executive protection and facilitating business travel to Hong Kong. For contingency plans and on-ground operational support, contact us at [email protected] or +44 20-3540-0434.