China’s Smothering of Hong Kong Has Democrats Preparing for Jail

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A year ago, Hong Kong protesters effectively killed an extradition bill that would subject them to criminal prosecution under China’s legal system for the first time — a victory that inspired them to demand real elections.

Now Beijing has unwound all those gains, and gone much further in eroding Hong Kong’s autonomy. Details of a proposed national security lawreleased over the weekend showed that Chinese authorities will have the right to directly prosecute residents for still vaguely defined offenses to national security, a provision used in the mainland to jail journalists, human-rights lawyers, religious pastors and others deemed to subvert the country’s leaders.

“We would have to become like mainland Chinese human rights activists,” said Eric Lai, vice convener of the Civil Human Rights Front, which organized some of the largest protests in Hong Kong last year against the extradition bill. “We may face criminal charges for everything we do.”

With the new laws, Chinese President Xi Jinping is making a calculated bet that he has more to gain than lose from snuffing out political dissent in the former British colony. The extent of the economic fallout in the city — already reeling from last year’s protests and the pandemic — largely depends on what punitive measures U.S. President Donald Trump takes, whether other nations also act and if multinationals leave town.

For Hong Kong’s democracy camp, the path forward is uncertain. The year began with high hopes that they might win a majority in Hong Kong’s Legislative Council for the first time when elections are held in September, building on a landslide victory in polls for local district councils in late 2019.

But the imposition of the national security law shows that Beijing will circumvent any institution in Hong Kong that doesn’t comply with its wishes, whether it be the legislature, the courts or the chief executive. And while mainland authorities have in recent years already begun encroaching on the autonomy it promised to Hong Kong before it took over from the British in 1997, the scope of speech deemed illegal could now increase dramatically under the new law.

For more on Hong Kong’s unrest:
  • Hong Kong Has Been Tested Before, But Never Like This
  • The New Laws China Is Pushing for Hong Kong: QuickTake
  • How China Pounced While Covid Overwhelmed the World
  • Hong Kong’s Rich Are Preparing for a Worst-Case Scenario

“There will be a lot of restrictions, there will be a lot of uncertainties as to who will be arrested, who will get disqualified in the upcoming election, there are a lot of question marks,” said Alvin Yeung, a pro-democracy lawmaker. “But again, if you pick any ordinary Hong Kong citizen, they will say ‘Yes it’s difficult but we will not easily give up.’”

Hong Kong’s protest movement has long been resilient in the face of increased Chinese assertiveness, sustaining weekly rallies last year until the Covid-19 pandemic prompted residents to stay indoors. Although Hong Kong’s government has the virus largely under control, it has maintained restrictions on public gatherings that have deterred demonstrators from gathering.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam, whose popularity cratered last year, has sought to reassure the public and the international business community that the law won’t disrupt Hong Kong’s legal system. In a statement on Saturday, her government said the law “will only target an extremely small minority of people,” and emphasized that freedoms “of the overwhelming majority” of Hong Kong residents would be respected.

Public Polls

So far, however, most people in the city aren’t convinced. A poll released by the Hong Kong Public Opinion Program on May 29 showed a majority of residents and 96% of democracy supporters opposed the measure. The American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong said more than 80% of the companies itsurveyed were concerned or very concerned about the legislation.

A Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce survey found the top concerns of surveyed domestic companies were business confidence relating to short-term uncertainties that the law might create, and the possibility of foreign sanctions against Hong Kong.

Raymond Chan, a pro-democracy lawmaker, said it’s crucial to fight Beijing’s narrative over the law while continuing to mobilize on the streets and showing up in force at the Legislative Council elections in September.

“Although the scale of peaceful street protests might not compare favorably to last year’s due to the pandemic and abusive police actions, we still need to show that world that the overwhelming majority of the people is against the law,” he said.

For democracy advocates, the proposed law has fundamentally shifted the playing field by signaling yet again that China will never accede to a long-standing demand from protesters: The right to nominate and elect leaders that aren’t first vetted by the Communist Party. The proposal gives Hong Kong’s chief executive the power to pick judges for cases under the law while heading a national security committee that answers directly to Beijing.

“Now we have to focus more on opposing the national security law than anything else,” said Lee Cheuk Yan, a former pro-democracy lawmaker who is now chairman of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, which was formed during the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. “Now in a way it’s the defense of civil liberty, and the defense of our rule of law and everything that we have cherished as a Hong Kong core value, to defend it from destruction.”

Still, while the jail sentences in the proposed law haven’t been announced, the increased threat of prison might force the protest movement to go “underground somewhat,” said Claudia Mo, a pro-democracy lawmaker. While that will be good news for Beijing, she said, it doesn’t mean Hong Kong has capitulated: “You don’t underestimate Hongkongers’ frustration and anger.”

Some key technical details had yet to be released, such as whether the law will be retroactive. Prison sentences for the four types of crimes would range between three to 10 years and would be largely in line with Hong Kong’s criminal laws, Radio Television Hong Kong reported, citing the city’s sole delegate to the Chinese legislative body.

The National People’s Congress Standing Committee, which is drafting the law, is set to meet from June 28 to 30 — raising the possibility that it could be in place before the July 1 holiday marking the 1997 handover. Lai, whose group has traditionally organized a mass protest on July 1, said those final details could make things even worse for activists.

“If in the end it’s announced that the legislation would be retroactive, then there’s nothing to discuss,” he said. “We could be arrested for what we did yesterday.”

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