Hong Kong Eyes New Security Law After Electing Loyalists
(Bloomberg) -- Hong Kong’s leader Carrie Lam touted plans to revive a controversial security law that ignited a political firestorm two decades ago, after completing an election to install a new legislature filled with Beijing loyalists.
The pro-establishment council elected in a muted vote Sunday should present “new proposals” by June on how to enact security legislation, Lam told a news briefing Monday, after the results were announced. While the former British colony recorded its lowest-ever voter turnout -- 30.2% -- as swathes of the public boycotted the electoral system recently revamped by Beijing, the result empowers Lam to pass once-difficult legislation unopposed.
A provision of Hong Kong’s charter drafted before its return to Chinese rule in 1997 requires a law banning “foreign political organizations or bodies from conducting political activities,” as well as, “treason, secession, sedition, subversion against the Central People’s Government, or theft of state secrets.” Such legislation has been shelved since huge street protests in 2003.
Chinese authorities cited the failure to pass the “Article 23” legislation as justification for their decision to impose a national security law on the city in June 2020. While that measure prohibited subversion, secession, colluding with foreign forces and terrorist activities, it lacked language on treason, sedition and theft of state secrets.
“It’s the constitutional responsibility of the SAR government,” Lam said Monday, referring to Hong Kong’s status as a special administrative region. “For a long time, we haven’t done that.”
Updated proposals were needed, Lam said, since the internet had brought new security threats and the “overall situation” of Hong Kong had changed since the last effort to pass Article 23. Lam, who hasn’t said yet whether she’ll seek a second term when her current five-year stint expires in June, was slated Monday to leave for Beijing to brief state leaders on Hong Kong’s situation.
Lam stopped short of detailing a timetable for passing the legislation, saying it was “not realistic” to expect lawmakers to approve such a measure before their upcoming session ends six months from now. That said, the body has moved quickly on several major proposals in recent months with opposition members out of the chamber.
“Article 23 will likely be an extension of China’s national security standards and ways of doing things to Hong Kong,” said Kenneth Chan, associate professor at the Hong Kong Baptist University. “Having purged the democracy movement and civil society, it will be very hard for citizens to get organized to voice their opinions or oppose Article 23.”
On Monday, Lam said was she was “happy” with the election result, despite a government campaign to boost voting rates falling short. Free public transport on Sunday saw the city’s network flooded as citizens inundated leisure attractions such as Ocean Park and Disneyland, rather than ballot boxes.
Authorities arrested 10 people for inciting others to cast blank votes before the election, and issued arrest warrants for at least five others on the same grounds, as they tried to protect voter turnout.
Just 1.35 million people out of almost 4.5 million registered eligible voters cast their ballot. In the professional groups that picked 30 candidates, turnout wasn’t much higher, at 32.2%. The 1,448-member pro-Beijing committee that chooses 40 lawmakers saw a 98.5% turnout.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said the lower turnout rate had “many reasons,” at a regular press briefing in Beijing on Monday. Those factors included “anti-China Hong Kong disruptors,” he said without specifying names, and Covid-19 despite the city having virtually eliminated local transmission and its public spaces being packed over the weekend.
The governments of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the U.K. and the U.S. later issued a joint statement expressing “grave concern over the erosion of democratic elements” in Hong Kong following the election.
“We urge the People’s Republic of China to act in accordance with its international obligations to respect protected rights and fundamental freedoms in Hong Kong, including those guaranteed under the Sino-British Joint Declaration,” the statement added, referring to the agreement between Beijing and London that led to the city’s handover.
The Hong Kong government’s earlier postponement of Sunday’s vote due to Covid-19 restrictions prevented the opposition riding a growing wave of momentum at the ballot box. The democracy camp won its greatest-ever share of seats in the previous legislative vote, and scored a landslide in the 2019 District Council elections.
Both moves came in the wake of widespread government protests in 2019, and wiped the pro-democracy opposition politicians who had supported that unrest from the legislature. Only one of the 90 lawmakers elected Sunday wasn’t a pro-establishment figure, with Tik Chi-yuen in the social welfare constituency representing the moderate Third Side party.
“All LegCo members are now patriots who are devoted to the Basic Law and the Hong Kong government despite their backgrounds,” Starry Lee, head of the pro-Beijing party Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, said Monday.
“Even between patriots, there’ll be different views on policies, ways to solve problems and how to advocate change in the government. I believe there’ll be various opinions during policy debate,” she added.
Dongshu Liu, assistant professor specializing in Chinese politics at City University of Hong Kong, said if the opposition movement wanted to participate in future elections it would be severely clipped.
“So that’s very much like the opposition in Singapore, where you do have opposition to government polices, but not challenging the fundamental political institution,” he added, noting that the legislature would get “further away from what society actually wants.”
“That’s a bigger danger,” he added. “The political divide will sooner or later be a problem. You can’t suppress the unhappy people forever.”
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