The controversial measuretitled “Establishing and Improving the Legal System and Enforcement Mechanism of Hong Kong”was proposed during the preparatory meeting for the third session of the 13th National People’s Congress (NPC) and will be debated when the session commences on Friday. The law was introduced through a scarcely used constitutional route that effectively bypasses Hong Kong’s lawmakers, and seeks to crack down on escalating anti-Beijing and pro-democracy protesters.
Speaking to Newsweek from Hong Kong on Friday morning local time, HRW Senior Researcher Maya Wang said that the law will “end Hong Kong as we know it.”
Given China’s past behaviors, we can be certain that “this decision will fundamentally change the ways of Hong Kong,” she told Newsweek. “These restrictions on so many different fundamental freedoms and values would alter our way of life. It would impact, for example, media freedom, the free press, the ability of civil society to exist.”
HRW China Director Sophie Richardson said the move “manifestly marks the end of any pretense that the central government in Beijing is going to respect norms, practices or binding international treaties in Hong Kong.”
“What’s really been damaged today is the idea that you can walk out on the street to protest and say what you want with the expectation that will be tolerated by China,” Richardson told Newsweek, noting that protesters will now have to be careful not to behave in a way that could be construed as a threat to national security.
When Hong Kong was returned to China by the British in 1997, Beijing touted an arrangement called “One Country, Two Systems,” under which the territory would be allowed to retain a high degree of autonomy and self-governance. The mainland promised the region universal suffrage, but two decades later, although its pseudo-democratic system allows citizens to vote, the list of candidates is still approved by China.
As set out in the Sino-British Joint Declaration, “One Country, Two Systems” is set to expire in 2047. But according to Richardson, Beijing’s plan signifies that they’re eager to absorb Hong Kong faster than was promised. “We’re closer to 2047 than we were 2 days ago,” she said.
Prominent pro-democracy figures in Hong Kong echoed HRW’s sentiments. “If this move takes place, ‘One Country, Two Systems’ will be officially erased. This is the end of Hong Kong,” Civic Party lawmaker Dennis Kwok said following the announcement.
The Chinese Communist Party views such laws as necessary to protect Beijing’s sovereignty from outside bodies seeking to undermine it. Hong Kong’s government proposed similar legislation in 2003 that would have allowed authorities to execute searches with the absence of warrants and end troublemaking newspaper publications. The rule was eventually ditched following widespread protests.
A Chinese state-run newspaper editorial argued that the measure will act as a deterrent and will hold “those who challenge national security” accountable for their behavior.
Richardson on Thursday warned that Beijing’s new proposal sends a chilling message to the rest of the world: “Regardless of what you think our legal commitments or mutual agreements to you are, to us it means what we think it means and we will interpret it as we see fit.”
“Any country who has a binding agreement with the Chinese government” should no longer rely on it,” she warned.
Wang explained that “losing Hong Kong will also mean losing the powerful voice that provides a slight moral check on China” which is important because Beijing is “expanding its influence and becoming increasingly powerful.”
“Human rights abuses will no longer stay in the mainland,” she added.
The situation looks grim for Hong Kong, but Richardson believes the region’s young protesters won’t likely take China’s latest power grab lying down and will quickly organize to protestthe very activity the mainland’s measure is seeking to quash.
The U.S. State Department threw their support behind Hong Kong on Thursday and warned China against imposing the new legislation.
In an 2018 interview with Newsweek, Nobel Peace Prize nominee Joshua Wong, billed as the mastermind of Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement in 2014, vowed to continue fighting for Hong Kong democracy “until it finally becomes a reality.”
“In 10 years’ time I will be on the same battlefield,” Wong said. “I just hope when people think of Hong Kong, it’s not just all Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan or dim sum. I hope in the near future, they will think of our country as a place where people fight for democracy.”