China's showcase political conflab, the National People's Congress, began today. First item on the agenda? A full-frontal attack on Hong Kong freedoms.
The second order of business was an item of non-business. Premier Li Keqiang opted not to set a growth target for 2020, something that's always established when the meeting normally meets in March.
It had planned to set a rate of "about 6%." But the uncertainties surrounding the Covid-19 recovery and global growth, not to mention the rekindled U.S.-China trade war, have scotched all that.
That first item is sending Hong Kong stocks south, with the Hang Seng plummeting 4.6% in early afternoon trade. The benchmark started lower, and just keeps going down. Shareholders should be very worried about their holdings in Hong Kong.
Chinese shares are also dragged down, with the CSI 300 of largest stocks in Shanghai and Shenzhen down 1.6%. There should be intense political pressure on China over this issue. We will see how far Britain and the United States are prepared to push Beijing over rights when money and trade is at stake.
Don't be fooled by the coverage of this issue, which mainly indicates that a "controversial" new law has been proposed.
It's not just controversial, it's illegal. Pro-democracy lawmaker Dennis Kwok is only slightly exaggerating that "This is the end of Hong Kong." It means Beijing will directly rule Hong Kong.
When China got its hands on Hong Kong in 1997, it promised that the former British territory would be allowed to keep its laws and operate autonomously for 50 years, until 2047. It signed the Sino-British Joint Declaration to that effect, a legal contract lodged with the United Nations. Hong Kong also established its constitution, the Basic Law, and elected its own government.
That government decides Hong Kong's laws. It says so in the Basic Law. The government is stacked to Beijing's favor, with half its members appointed rather than elected. Even then, the pro-Beijing camp struggle to shove through their legislation.
With this new law, the mainland government is simply enacting a new law of its own directly, in Beijing, and imposing it on Hong Kong. It plans to write the new "security" law into the Hong Kong constitution directly, bypassing the Hong Kong government altogether.
So Beijing is dispensing with any pretence that Hong Kong governs itself. It says it got "frustrated" with waiting for the proper legal process to occur.
It would be, I suppose, similar to the federal government bypassing states altogether and writing a sedition law, perhaps with capital punishment, directly into the state constitution of all 50. It would mean the end of any power for state governments.
That is vitally important in the case of this new law. Hong Kong, which guarantees free speech, has a totally different view of what kind of conversations about the government are allowed. Mainland China restricts free speech massively, censors discussion, leaving no one comfortable in criticizing the Communist Party in public. You can get locked up for decades for doing so, potentially executed. The international coverage of this issue is being blacked out on TV screens and blocked online as I write.
I can currently criticize the Communist Party all I want, here in Hong Kong. With this new law, my ability to write these articles will be severely curtailed.
All this is being done under the guise of "national security," the catch-all phrase beloved by dictators and authoritarian governments the world over. "National security is the bedrock underpinning the stability of the country," Zhang Yesui, the spokesman for the National People's Congress, said as the Communist Party's flagship meeting kicked off on Friday.
It's a poorly run, unstable and weak country if its bedrock is stopping criticism of that country. A proud, strong nation should be able to take criticism on the chin.
We don't yet know what will be in the new law. The central government is today due to table a resolution to allow the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress to craft and pass the new national security law for Hong Kong. Translation: the rubber stamp government will approve the top leaders writing a treason law for Hong Kong.
The new law will ban secessionist and subversive activity, as well as foreign interference and terrorism, according to the sources at the South China Morning Post. So foreign entities and people can also be charged.
It presents a real dilemma for Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. He has delayed a report on how autonomous Hong Kong actually is until after this meeting in Beijing. He must certify an annual assessment that Hong Kong is self-governed enough to justify separate trade status. That is very much in doubt.
China is already referring to last year's pro-democracy demonstrations as terrorism, and says anyone flying a foreign flag at a march is promoting Hong Kong independence. Of course, the Communist leaders are furious that people have been burning and stamping on the Chinese flag, booing the national anthem, and even breaking into the government chambers here to spray-paint over the Hong Kong flag.
Hong Kong's constitution does state that the city has to pass a national security law, in its Article 23. So-called Article 23 legislation was put forward by the Hong Kong government in 2003, but pulled after 500,000 people marched in opposition to it in the streets.
Now the Beijing government has lost patience with playing the rigged game that it set up. It figures that it will simply directly rule Hong Kong in this case, banning criticism of itself, how China is governed, how Hong Kong is governed. Presumably you, in the United States, could be prosecuted for "foreign interference" should you criticize the party and step foot in Hong Kong.
So beware. This law really does mean the end of Hong Kong's autonomy. It is dangerous for us all.