China seeking more control on Hong Kong

China has started pushing for an “improvement” in the Basic Law — the mini-constitution that defines ties between Hong Kong and Beijing — signalling a fundamental change in the way the highly autonomous city-state is run.

A controversial national security law for Hong Kong is being mooted in the Chinese parliament . The new law, which is being described as the most sweeping step at curbing dissent so far, seeks to ban “treason, secession, sedition and subversion”, and could be passed without consulting the Hong Kong legislature.

Hong Kong’s ‘Basic Law’

A former British colony, Hong Kong was handed over to mainland China in 1997, becoming one of its Special Administrative Regions. It is governed by a mini-constitution called the Basic Law — which affirms the principle of “one country, two systems”. The constitutional document is a product of the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration– under which China promised to honour Hong Kong’s liberal policies, system of governance, independent judiciary, and individual freedoms for a period of 50 years from 1997.

Since the handover, Hong Kong residents have time and again taken to the streets to protect their Basic Law freedoms, with the first major pro-democracy protest taking place in 2003. In 2014, over one lakh city residents took part in the ‘Umbrella Revolution’ to protest against China’s denial of democratic reforms.

Impact of the 2019 protests

The largest protests since the 1997 handover took place last year, when for months tens of thousands of Hong Kongers agitated against a proposed extradition law, and continued with pro-democracy marches even after the legislation was withdrawn. The large scale protests were seen as an affront by mainland China, which under President Xi Jinping has increasingly adopted a more hardline approach to foreign policy and internal security issues in recent years.

The Hong Kong unrest is also believed to have left its mark on Taiwan, another prickly issue for Beijing which considers the island state as its own. In this year’s presidential election, Taiwanese voters brought to power the Democratic Progressive Party, which openly opposes joining China.

The proposed national security law

Under Article 23 of the Basic Law, Hong Kong has to enact a national security law “to prohibit any act of treason, secession, sedition, subversion against the Central People’s Government, or theft of state secrets, to prohibit foreign political organizations or bodies from conducting political activities in the Region, and to prohibit political organizations or bodies of the Region from establishing ties with foreign political organizations or bodies.”

When the Hong Kong government first tried to enact the law in 2003, the issue became a rallying point for the city-wide protests which occurred that year. Since then, the government has steered clear of introducing the legislation again.

Beijing could now make the law applicable to Hong Kong by another route — by inserting the legislation in Annex III of the Basic Law. Under Article 18, national laws can be applied in Hong Kong if they are placed in Annex III, and must be “confined to those relating to defence and foreign affairs as well as other matters outside the limits of the autonomy of the Region.” Once listed in Annex III, national laws can be enforced in the city by way of promulgation– meaning automatically being put into effect– or by legislating locally in the Special Administrative Region.

What could happen if such a law takes effect?

The new law would ban seditious activities that target mainland Chinese rule, as well as punish external interference in Hong Kong affairs. Many expect a revival of the protests that rocked the city last year.

A major blow to Hong Kong’s freedoms, the law could effectively bring the city under full control of mainland China . The move could also undermine Hong Kong’s position as an East Asian trading hub, and invite global disapproval for Beijing, which is already being accused of withholding key information related to the coronavirus pandemic.