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Hong Kong pauses new security law, saying it needs more time to make it watertight

The announcement by the Hong Kong government that it will shelve further draft national security legislation at least until the end of the year could be a temporary move, and does little to reverse the loss of the city’s freedoms over the past 10 years under Chinese leader Xi Jinping, political commentators said on Tuesday.

National security legislation mandated by Article 23 of the city’s mini-constitution, the Basic Law, was conspicuously absent from a list of bills to be presented to the Legislative Council (LegCo) by the end of the year, after appearing in a similar list in January 2022.

Hong Kong chief executive John Lee, who vowed on taking office to press ahead with more “effective” security laws, told reporters that the government needs more time to study the exact form such laws should take.

“In terms of legal research, we need to conduct an in-depth and comprehensive review of possible methods, in the light of recent changes in the international situation,” Lee said.

“We don’t want to make a law that contains loopholes and then have to revise it, so we need to carry out sufficient and comprehensive legal research.”

“The most important thing is that the law we make is truly effective,” Lee said, citing rapid geopolitical changes as a factor in the decision.

He said among measures being considered were those targeted people deemed a potential threat to national security, including “preventing them from leaving somewhere,” or subjecting them to “repeated bans.”

Concerns over travel bans being used to prevent people from leaving Hong Kong first emerged in 2021, when the government amended the city’s immigration laws to enable security chiefs to ban passengers from taking any form of transport in or out of the city.

It was unclear whether Lee was referring to such bans, however, and he gave no further details.

Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee delivers a speech on stage during an official reception marking the Chinese National Day in Hong Kong, China, Oct. 1, 2022. Credit: Reuters

On hold during congress

The amendment to the Immigration Ordinance sparked concerns that it will be used to prevent people from leaving amid an ever-widening crackdown on public dissent and peaceful political opposition, and the mass emigration of hundreds of thousands of people since the National Security Law for Hong Kong took effect on July 1, 2020.

Dozens of former opposition lawmakers and democracy campaigners have been held on remand awaiting trial for more than a year under the existing national security law, while those granted bail have been forced to surrender travel documents, effectively preventing them from leaving.

Current affairs commentator Sang Pu said the withdrawal of the Article 23 legislation could be linked to the forthcoming CCP 20th National Congress, which opens in Beijing on Oct. 16.

“It’s because the authorities are busy with the biggest political power game of all; the CCP 20th National Congress,” Sang told RFA. “Maybe this means there will be a little bit more slack in some areas.”

But he said he didn’t expect this to continue once Xi wins an expected third term in office at the party congress.

Lee, a former high-ranking policeman and government security chief who was the only candidate in an “election” for the city’s top job held earlier this year, has said the ongoing crackdown on dissent under the national security law will be his “fundamental mission.”

The crackdown has led to the closure of civic groups including labor unions, pro-democracy newspapers and an organization that once organized annual candlelight vigils for the victims of the 1989 Tiananmen massacre.

More than 10,000 people have been arrested and the 2,800 prosecuted under the national security law, among them 47 former pro-democracy politicians and activists awaiting trial for “subversion” after they took part in a democratic primary election in July 2020.

The government later postponed the Legislative Council elections the primary was preparing for and changed the electoral system so that pro-democracy candidates couldn’t run.

The Lai family, who are emigrating to Scotland, wave goodbye to their friends who are seeing them off before their departure at Hong Kong International Airport in Hong Kong, China, December 17, 2020. Credit: Reuters
The Lai family, who are emigrating to Scotland, wave goodbye to their friends who are seeing them off before their departure at Hong Kong International Airport in Hong Kong, China, December 17, 2020. Credit: Reuters

Damage to ‘One Country, Two Systems’

Current affairs commentator Ching Cheong said the recent waves of mass popular protest since the 1997 handover to China, which included demonstrations against Article 23 legislation as early as 2003, are directly linked to the erosion of the city’s promised freedoms under Xi Jinping.

“Since Xi Jinping came to power, the damage to ‘one country, two systems’ [under which Hong Kong was supposed to maintain its freedoms] has been enormous,” Ching told RFA.

“The [1984 Sino-British] Joint Declaration and the Basic Law both stipulate that Hong Kong should have a high degree of autonomy, but then the central government published a white paper in 2014, saying that it basically had full control over the running of Hong Kong,2 he said.

“This distorted the spirit of the Basic Law.”

Beijing followed that up with an Aug. 31, 2014 decree offering the city a one person, one vote arrangement, but only for a slate of candidates pre-approved by Beijing.

“The Aug. 31 resolution by National People’s Congress (NPC) [standing committee] in 2014, also during Xi Jinping’s tenure, denied people the right to stand for election,” Ching said. “This castrated version of universal suffrage showed that the CCP fully intended to manipulate election results.”

Further signs that the writing was on the wall came with the cross-border detentions of five publishers of books banned in mainland China, though not in Hong Kong at the time, including titles containing political gossip about Xi.

Then, plans emerged to amend the Fugitive Offenders Ordinance to allow the extradition of alleged criminal suspects to face trial in mainland Chinese courts.

“The purpose of the amendment to the Fugitive Offenders Ordinance was to tear down the firewall between the two systems,” Ching said. “There were riotous protests against it in Hong Kong at the time, which the CCP felt had to be suppressed by force.”

Under the “one country, two systems” terms of the 1997 handover agreement, Hong Kong was promised the continuation of its traditional freedoms of speech, association, and expression, as well as progress towards fully democratic elections and a separate legal jurisdiction.

But plans to allow extradition to mainland China sparked a city-wide mass movement in 2019 that broadened to demand fully democratic elections and an independent inquiry into police violence.

Rights groups and foreign governments have hit out at the rapid deterioration of human rights protections since the national security law was imposed.

Its sweeping provisions allowed China’s feared state security police to set up a headquarters in Hong Kong, granted sweeping powers to police to search private property and require the deletion of public content, and criminalized criticism of the city government and the authorities in Beijing.

Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.

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