A Grim Day for Democracy in Hong Kong – and the World

Just over a year ago, Hong Kongers took to the streets to hold Beijing to its commitments under the “one country, two systems” principle, uniting around five core demands for political freedom and accountability. After months of violent repression of these popular peaceful protests, this week the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) showed unmistakably that its authoritarian system is unwilling to coexist with a vibrant democratic society – imposing a draconian national security law drafted in secrecy that effectively ends the era of an autonomous and free Hong Kong. This action breaks longstanding commitments both to the people of Hong Kong and the international community, and bodes ill for the future of democracy in the region.  

On June 30 – one day before the 23rd anniversary of the transfer of Hong Kong from British to Chinese control – the Hong Kong Government published the text of the new Hong Kong National Security Law (NSL) in simplified Chinese, and significantly not in the complex Chinese that is so closely tied to Hong Kong identity. It seems clear that Hong Kong officials, including chief executive Carrie Lam, had not seen the text of the law until right before it was passed.  

The text grants agents of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) government unprecedented authority to supervise, guide and assist in the enforcement of the law in Hong Kong – while they remain exempt from the laws governing the once-autonomous territory and operate in direct contravention of Hong Kong’s constitution, the Basic Law. The NSL puts an unequivocal end to Hong Kong’s long tradition of judicial independence and the rule of law: should Hong Kong law and the national security law disagree, the national security law will now take precedence.  

This has clear ramifications not only for Hong Kong, but for individuals, organizations and companies around the globe. NSL Article 38 makes it clear that this law is intended to apply to anyone, anywhere who does anything the CCP considers an offence. If you were to share this blog post on social media and then transit through the Hong Kong airport, that very act could be used as evidence for your arrest. Under the terms of the NSL, anyone who falls afoul of the law could be tried not in Hong Kong, but rather in a PRC court and with no right to judicial review.  

Collectively, the various provisions of the law make an unmistakable statement: The CCP is the law enforcement authority in Hong Kong – not the Hong Kong government or its people. Moreover, the CCP has already signaled that it will interpret this law – as it does with numerous other laws – arbitrarily and without transparency. The effect of this law is not to create a new legal regime in Hong Kong, it is to remove rule-of-law writ large and replace it with the whim of a one-party state. 

Various articles of this law represent just the most recent effort by the CCP to smear the pro-democracy protest movement as subject to foreign interference, with specific penalties for “collusion” with foreign entities on national security matters. This past December, the Chinese Communist Party announced sanctions on NGOs working to expand democracy around the world, including the International Republican Institute (IRI). As with this new National Security Law, the CCP did not provide any legal basis for these sanctions. These actions are clear attempts to undermine the agency of the Hong Kong people and divert attention from the Party’s own catastrophic failures of governance. The CCP is trying to justify the NSL by using the language of terrorism, secession and subversion to obscure what is in effect the criminalization of free speech and democratic dissent. Seven million Hong Kongers must now try to navigate this new reality and what it will mean for their future.  

What we do know is that this law represents a danger to every person in the world who values free speech, the presumption of innocence and other basic freedoms. Democracies across the world, and indeed any country that values a rules-based international system, must stand by the people of Hong Kong in both rhetoric and action until their rights and freedoms are restored. 

IRI stands unequivocally with the people of Hong Kong whose rights and freedoms have been slowly eroded and now precipitously revoked by the CCP. Our resolve to help all people everywhere in their journey towards political freedom and representative governance remains undaunted.

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