Updated: Dec 15, 2020
Unlike the rest of the world, the people of Hong Kong have been out on the streets instead of following the precautionary home quarantine, carrying out Anti-Government protests. According to recent reports, the protests show no signs of dying down anytime soon. The residents of Hong Kong have been involved in protests since 2019, which revolves around the slogan: “Five demands, not one less”. These demands were:
For the protests not to be characterised as a "riot"
Amnesty for arrested protesters
An independent inquiry into alleged police brutality
Implementation of complete universal suffrage
The fifth demand, the withdrawal of the extradition bill, which was supposed to allow extraditions to mainland China, had already been met. However, the protesters feared that the bill would be revived and continued their pro-democracy protests to get all their demands fulfilled.
Moreover, on 30th July 2020, Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s Chief Executive, had signed a broad, catch-all National Security Law on instructions from Beijing. To further understand these issues, it is very important to first know the history of Hong Kong.
In 1842, to deal with the repercussions of the First Opium War, China had ceded the island of Hong Kong to the British through the Treaty of Nanjing. Over the next 50 years, the United Kingdom controlled all three main regions of Hong Kong: the island of Hong Kong, the Kowloon Peninsula, and the New Territories, which now makes up for a majority of Hong Kong.
In 1898, through the final treaty, Convention for the Extension of Hong Kong Territory, the New Territories were leased to Britain for a period of 99 years, at the end of which China was to regain control of the land.
In 1984, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and China’s premier Zhao Ziyang signed the Sino-British Joint Declaration, agreeing on a “one country, two systems” policy for a period of 50 years, in which China was supposed to give complete social and political autonomy to Hong Kong.
Post the Handover:
After the handover in 1997, Hong Kong became a Special Administrative Region of China having its own “mini Constitution”, legal system and democratic rights like free speech, and the freedom of assembly under its Basic Law.
The Basic Law also vests executive powers in the Chief Executive, who is under the jurisdiction of the Central Government in Beijing and is re-elected every 5 years. However, the residents of Hong Kong cannot elect their leaders. The Chief Executive is elected by an Election Committee comprising of 1200 members.
Beginning from 2014, elections were conducted using a list of only two or three candidates vetted by Beijing. A 1200 member Election Committee, largely comprising of pro-Beijing candidates, casts its votes based on that list. Any candidate would have to secure the support of more than 50% of the Committee before being able to run in the elections. Democracy activists argue that this gives China the ability to screen out any candidates it disapproves of and call this system a “sham democracy”.
This along with the other Chinese policies, like the extradition bill, has led to mass protests, strained British-Chinese diplomatic relations, and fuelled increasing concerns that China is stifling public dissent, interfering in Hong Kong’s local politics, and eroding human rights in Hong Kong. To top it all, Chief Executive, Carrie Lam went one step ahead and signed the National Security law.
The National Security Law:
The Law came into effect on 30th June 2020, hours before the 23rd anniversary of the city’s handover to China from the British rule. The Law gives Beijing unbridled powers to control Hong Kong like never before. It is capable of effectively curbing free speech and protests. However, China has said it will return stability to Hong Kong. The provisions of the law were not disclosed to the public until after its passing.
The key provisions of the 66 Articles of the law are:
Crimes of secession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with foreign forces are punishable by a maximum sentence of life in prison.
Damaging public transport facilities can be considered terrorism.
Those found guilty will not be allowed to stand for public office.
Beijing will establish a new security office in Hong Kong, with its law enforcement personnel - neither of which would come under the local authority's jurisdiction.
This office can send some cases to be tried in mainland China - but Beijing has said it will only have that power over a "tiny number" of cases.
Beijing will have power over how the law should be interpreted, not any Hong Kong judicial or policy body. If the law conflicts with any Hong Kong law, the Beijing law takes priority
Some trials will be heard behind closed doors.
People suspected of breaking the law can be wire-tapped and put under surveillance.
The law will also apply to non-permanent residents of Hong Kong.
With the implementation of this Law, the residents of Hong Kong fear the loss of their freedoms. "It is clear that the law will have a severe impact on freedom of expression, if not personal security, on the people of Hong Kong," Professor Johannes Chan, a legal scholar at the University of Hong Kong, told the BBC before the passage of the law. It is also feared that Hong Kong’s judicial independence will be lost and will look similar to that of mainland China.
It is truly daunting how China single-handedly destroyed the democracy of Hong Kong by the imposition of single legislation. The residents of Hong Kong now face very dark times ahead, with control over their freedom of speech and expression. The crux of democracy is the people’s right to dissent concerning the policies and actions of its Government. With that being taken away, we see China trying to impose its undemocratic principles on Hong Kong under the façade of this law, which they claim to be highly necessary and a safeguard for national security in Hong Kong. Moreover, with the Government majorly comprising of pro-Beijing candidates, it is tough for the residents of Hong Kong to find a silver lining in these difficult times.