Beijing's willing helpers bang the last nail into Hong Kong’s autonomy with new law - SOAS China Institute

//Beijing’s willing helpers bang the last nail into Hong Kong’s autonomy with new law

Beijing’s willing helpers bang the last nail into Hong Kong’s autonomy with new law

Photo credit: Cheung Yin (Unsplash)

By Stephen Vines | 27 March 2024

Connoisseurs of sham parliaments famous for their mastery of synchronized clapping and unanimous voting will be pleased to note that another legislature has graduated from trainee to fully fledged membership of their ranks albeit with a lingering degree of uncertainty as to quite how to perform.


On 19 March every member of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council stumbled to their feet to pledge their fealty to a new law which sweeps away the last vestiges of Hong Kong’s liberty.


In a parody closely resembling the behaviour of members of China’s rubber stamp National People’s Congress who represent the PRC’s five so called autonomous regions, they had no hesitation in betraying the people they claim to serve.


The legislators had been instructed by their masters in Beijing to drop everything else to rush through a new Safeguarding National Security Law (also known as Article 23) which builds on the already draconian National Security Law of 2020 to impose severe penalties for challenging the regime, thinking of challenging the regime, reading materials that can be construed as challenging the regime, and as ever, daring to contact with foreigners with allegedly seditious intent.


The new law is based on a legal template common to every nation where authoritarian government prevails. On the one hand it reflects an extreme level of paranoia about the threats to the survival of the regime, while on the other blocks every possible area of potential challenge to the rulers.


The difference in Hong Kong, where the common law framework still lingers, albeit in tatters, is that it has had to append dictatorship-style legal provisions onto a genuine system of rule of law. Thus, in this rather bulky piece of legislation the regime has been obliged to write in numerous overrides to the existing system. For the avoidance of doubt Article 62 of the security law clarifies that where there are inconsistencies with the existing legal system, these are overridden by the new law.


Out goes free access to legal representation of the defendant’s choice, out goes trial by jury, out goes open court proceedings, out goes an independent judiciary and out goes the option for judges to be lenient.


In place of laws which are explicit and offer clear guidelines comes a host of vaguely drawn offences lowering the burden of proof for conviction because much of what has now become law involves intentions and implications of intentions that can be freely interpreted by the prosecutor.


All attempts, albeit rather half-hearted, at introducing safeguards made during an extremely short and largely farcical ‘consultation exercise’ were swept aside. The subjugation of the two main organisations representing lawyers ensured that their customary and instructive participation in an exercise such as this was transformed into a propaganda fig leaf for a regime able to say that legal professionals were fully in favour of the new law.


Such is the overbearing nature of this law that it has provoked real fears that everyday activities, some vital to Hong Kong’s functioning as an international financial centre, have been placed in jeopardy.


The law makes it possible to class criticism and questioning of government policy as damaging the regime’s reputation and or subversively undermining its operations. This means that, for example, if a finance house analyst questions official statistics or suggests that an aspect of policy is in error they can find themselves accused of subversion. Obtaining any kind of information which has not been released via official channels can be classed as revealing state secrets and therefore subject to charges of treason.


If matters ended there it would be quite bad enough but now there is a new offence of having knowledge of subversive intent or action and failing to report it. This means that a priest in the sanctity of a confessional can be arrested for hearing a penitent say something which is later interpreted as being subversive.


When challenged on this point Hong Kong’s Secretary for Justice Paul Lam said that ‘treason is a very serious matter’ and there could be no exemptions for priests or social workers who did not report treasonous statements.


If none of this is chilling enough Mr Lam has also said that anyone in Hong Kong agreeing with a column like this written overseas and daring to repost it could be jailed for inciting hatred against the authorities.

This article is based on a Substack blog posted by Stephen Vines on 26 March 2024 – The Mouse That Almost Roared.

Stephen Vines is a journalist, writer and broadcaster who worked in Hong Kong for 35 years before leaving in 2021. He was the presenter of the public broadcasters’ last surviving TV current affairs show. Previously he was the founding editor of the daily ‘Eastern Express’ newspaper. During his time in Hong Kong he worked as a correspondent for The Sunday Times, The Observer, The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph, The Independent and the BBC. He is the author of several books, Defying the Dragon – Hong Kong and the World’s Largest Dictatorship, is the most recent.

The views expressed on this blog are those of the author(s) and are not necessarily those of the SOAS China Institute.