Today, 23 years after Britain handed Hong Kong back to China, Beijing has imposed its full law on the city. It is the end of free Hong Kong. So I hear.
The first person already has been arrested in Hong Kong under the city's new treason-and-sedition law. The man, wearing a T-shirt saying "Free Hong Kong," was waving a black flag, Hong Kong Independence. Someone else was searched and then arrested merely for possessing a Taiwan flag.
We supposedly have freedom of speech in the city, but not now when it comes to flags and T-shirts. The law brings China-style mind control into the supposedly autonomous and open city. It essentially extends the mainland's suppressive legal system into the financial capital of East Asia.
We supposedly have freedom of assembly, too. July 1 is a public holiday here to commiserate over the 1997 handover back to China; the normal protest against China's administration of the city was ruled illegal under convenient public safety/coronavirus grounds.
Investors should sell Hong Kong short; its leaders already have.
Hong Kong's role as a finance hub is now in serious doubt. Why would an investment bank base its Asia operations in the city when an innocuous analyst's report, critical of either the Hong Kong or Beijing government, or a state-owned company, could land its author in prison? The bank should turn elsewhere for its base, if it has any sense. Businesses, too, unintentionally could run afoul of the law.
The manner in which the legislation is imposed demonstrates how wildly unpopular it is. The Communist government in China rushed it through with "debate" in secret over two weeks that led to its passing, unopposed. Hong Kongers were not shown the wording of the law until it was forced on them. The local government did not debate it whatsoever, or have any input.
So the Communist, mainland powers have rammed a law down the city's throat in a bid to silence dissent. Anyone who criticizes the Beijing government and calls its leadership into question can be punished. The Chinese Communist Party is particularly concerned about foreign pressure, so the law stipulates that it is a potential crime for anyone to call on an overseas government to impose sanctions or restrictions on Hong Kong or China.
A Few Hypotheticals
So in theory, if I were to say that:
The United States government should definitely impose punitive sanctions on the Chinese government, the Hong Kong government, and its leading officials in response to this violation of international law...
I could be punished for that.
If I were to say that
The United States and Britain should group together with the G7 group of developed economies to punish China for imposing this egregious law...
it could be a problem.
If I were to say that:
Britain should definitely pursue a case against this law before the United Nations by suing China for violating the Sino-British Joint Declaration, which was lodged as a legal treaty with the U.N...
well, it may be a problem.
The law runs counter to China's promises made in its contract with Britain when it got its hands back on Hong Kong. That's what I've heard, although none of the above comments are at all what I think. Right? I'm sure you understand.
Casting a Wide Net
The 66 provisions in the law were shoved out for public consumption just before midnight on Tuesday. The went into effect as the clock ticked over to Wednesday, a public holiday to "celebrate" the day in 1997 when Hong Kong fell back into Chinese hands. Hong Kong had been ceded in perpetuity to Britain by China in 1842, but the Brits decided their colonial era had come to a close.
The language is deliberately vague so that the Communists can make a case against, well, anybody they don't like. And this is no imaginary "what if" - China will. There are four main crimes: secession, subversion, terrorism and "collusion with a foreign country or external elements."
What the heck does that mean? Coffee with a diplomat? Guilty as charged. Wire transfer from a foreign bank? Suspect. Listening to Steve Bannon rant on a podcast? Collusion, for sure! Membership of the American Chamber of Commerce? That's surely an "external element." Time behind bars. The maximum sentence for each crime is life in prison.
Hong Kong's leader, Chief Executive Carrie Lam, is quite right, unintentionally, that this law is the most important development since Hong Kong was handed back by the British 23 years ago. It's the most important development because it ends Hong Kong's special autonomous status, which China pledged to maintain for 50 years, until 2047.
Now, after this law, Hong Kong is just A.N. Other Chinese city. You'll hear the Hong Kong government mouthpieces stressing how this law is even better. But you can basically assume that the exact opposite of what they say is true. It's a disaster. They are gas-lighting. Carrie Lam, whom critics say is a Beijing stooge, will go down as the leader who undermined Hong Kong's freedoms, betrayed it, sold it out. So I've heard.
So Much for Two Systems
The new law ends One Country, Two Systems, and imposes simply One System. The law is basically the same as you'd experience in mainland China, where spies follow around international media and interfere with their efforts to interview citizens or report the truth. Critics of the government disappear without warning, under detention without representation, or simply are imprisoned without trial. Any trial is a show, because Chinese courts have around a 99% conviction rate.
The Hong Kong sedition law, the authorities claim, is only aimed at a "small fraction" of serious offenders. But it is not written that way. It is ill-defined on purpose, quite clearly aimed at stamping out all dissent from any source. It will be selectively enforced against Beijing's perceived enemies. It brings in a new era of "white terror," in which government critics are scared to express their true thoughts for fear of arrest, prosecution and prison time.
Nobody in Hong Kong has been scared for their safety. It is one of the safest cities in the world, one where I feel perfectly comfortable wandering down any dark alley in an industrial zone, whatever time of day or night.
But if you listen to the authorities, the students who demonstrated for democracy last year and for Hong Kong's unique rights to be preserved are "vigilantes," "rioters," "radicals." Damaging public transport, a target of their anti-government ire, is now defined as "terrorism."
How radical is it to demand democracy, a right that China promised to introduce in the handover agreement? The students don't like the way Beijing governs, and for good reason: We now see China's true colors.
We will now have real thugs, from the Chinese state security, on the streets in Hong Kong. Beijing will establish a new "state security office" in Hong Kong that basically is a spy agency outpost. The city is supposed to police itself, according to its constitution, the Basic Law. But now it does not, in the end.
Do not trust China. That's what I hear people say. The Beijing government will apparently violate any international agreement if it suits its purposes. It will stop at nothing to stamp out dissent, and the Communist Party will make every effort, both underhand and overhand, to arrest, punish and imprison its critics.
Will the World Respond?
Unfortunately, the response from the international community is unlikely to be commensurate with Beijing's "crimes." Britain has followed through on its plan to open up a path to citizenship for Hong Kongers born before 1997. As of Wednesday, holders of British National (Overseas) passports will be able to live and work in Britain for five-year stays, after which they can apply for the "settled status" of permanent residency.
The surprisingly expansive offer means around 3 million out of Hong Kong's 7.4 million citizens are eligible. The offer extended Wednesday has also expanded to cover their spouses and children under 18. Sadly, young people born after 1997 but before 2003, and who are therefore adults, would not be covered.
But Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison is preparing an offer of additional "support" to fleeing Hong Kongers. Taiwan has opened an office on Wednesday to help people fleeing Hong Kong. The Taiwan-Hong Kong Office for Exchange and Services had its ribbon cutting today in Taipei and says it has received "many calls."
The European Commission's president, Ursula von der Leyen, warned last week of "very negative consequences" if China pushed ahead with this law. It is unclear what that means, although the European Union has been discussing a response with the G7 group of developed, free nations.
Many Hong Kongers are pinning their hopes to their new pin-up hero, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. The United States has said it will slap travel bans and sanctions on Chinese and Hong Kong officials found to violate Hong Kongers' rights, a move China also announced it will reciprocate with visa bans on U.S. officials. The United States also will bar the export of weapons to the Hong Kong police and other sensitive technology to Hong Kong, although the figures are small: the State Department last year sent US$1.4 million in firearms and ammunition to the Hong Kong police.
Pompeo has also announced that the United States will stop treating Hong Kong as autonomous or sufficiently independent of China to warrant special trading status. That hurts the city, but is a necessary move. Unfortunately, U.S. President Donald Trump is interested only in using Hong Kong as a negotiation pawn to do more trade with China; we hope other officials within the administration are committed to real human rights.
Hong Kong needs the rest of the world's help, and China should feel the consequences of its misgovernance of the city, its betrayed promises, its heavy hand. That's what I've heard people say.
Note: This article has been updated to reflect new information on Britain's offer and Australia's statement.