On 28 May, China's rubber-stamp legislature, the National People's Congress (NPC), authorised its standing committee to pass a 'National Security Law' for Hong Kong. The move comes after a decision on the same was taken last week, and purports to "establish and improve the legal system and enforcement mechanisms for the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region to safeguard national security".
It empowers Beijing to directly insert national security legislation into Hong Kong's Basic Law which is a mini-constitution of sorts. While the stated aim of this new legal framework is to prohibit activities of "secession, subversion, terrorism and foreign interference", it is likely to be used to stifle political activity and criminalise dissent in Hong Kong like never before, severely undermining the much-touted "One Country Two Systems" principle.
To be sure, it is required by Article 23 of Hong Kong's Basic Law that the local administration there passes the national security law. However, over the years, successive governments deferred this, following a botched attempt in 2003 that had triggered widespread demonstrations in Hong Kong. So Beijing is now using Article 18 that allows it to bypass Hong Kong's legislature, in order to directly introduce the national security legislation"although such a procedure would violate Articles 12 and 22 of the Basic Law.
To fully understand the motivations, as well as the likely implications, it is important to situate the latest move in the context of the wider attempts to erode Hong Kong's autonomy and cruel suppression of the democratic way of life in the city.
A series of efforts to tighten grip
Hong Kong's autonomy is a promise by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) that dates back to 1984, when the Sino-British Joint Declaration was signed between China and the UK, ahead of the British handoff of the territory in 1997.
At the time of that transition, the CCP leadership had agreed to allow the people of Hong Kong to continue enjoying their basic freedoms"which include the freedom of speech and assembly, free press, as well as an independent judiciary"for a period of 50 years until 2047.
While the Chinese government broadly abided by this arrangement for the first decade or so after the handover, it has, in recent years, tried to tighten its grip over the island city.
In 2014, Beijing introduced a pre-screening for candidates contesting in the election for the post of Hong Kong's Chief Executive, and also effectively denied universal suffrage. The move sparked major agitations across Hong Kong that coalesced into a political movement, called the Umbrella movement"owing to the use of umbrellas as a tool of resistance.
Despite prolonged sit-ins by the protestors, the movement failed to reverse Beijing's diktats. Nevertheless, it marked the beginning of an era of resistance in Hong Kong.
Five years later in 2019, Hong Kong once again erupted in protests, in response to the controversial extradition bill introduced by the pro-Beijing Chief Executive, Carie Lam.
The proposed law was seen as a major threat to Hong Kong's judicial independence, as it could particularly be used to extradite those who are critics of China and expose them to unfair trials and denial of human rights. Even without such a legal framework, the Chinese government in recent years has carried out extrajudicial detentions of dissidents from Hong Kong, as illustrated in the case of the forced disappearances of the Causeway Bay booksellers in 2015.
The extradition law, therefore, would have further opened the gates for the mainland's authoritarian practices to spill over into Hong Kong.
Thankfully, the protests last year were at least partly successful in pushing back Beijing's agenda. As after 14 successive weeks of demonstrations, Lam was forced to announce the formal withdrawal of the proposed extradition bill in early September.
However, this was only one of the five demands of the protestors. With none of the other demands being met, demonstrations continued for several weeks and came to a complete halt only after the coronavirus outbreak.
The growing assertion of the pro-democracy protests, first in 2014 and then again in 2019, has emerged as a serious challenge for the leadership of Xi Jinping. Countering this pro-democracy and anti-CCP sentiment, therefore, has become an important priority for the Chinese government. It has, over the years, explored both soft and hard measures towards this end.
For instance, the Chinese authorities have increasingly sought to influence education inside Hong Kong, and impose the mainland narratives of history and nationality. Beijing has also pushed other measures such as promoting Mandarin as against the local lingua franca of Cantonese and criminalising the disrespect of the Chinese national anthem.
Meanwhile, in recent months when the world was busy fighting the coronavirus pandemic, Beijing launched a fresh crackdown on dissenters, arresting more than a dozen prominent pro-democracy activists"including veteran politicians"on the same day.
Since the protests broke out last year, as many as over 8,400 people have been arrested in Hong Kong. In another indicator of the hardline approach taken by the Chinese authorities, a report released on 15 May by a local police watchdog in Hong Kong completely exonerated the police's role in handling last year's protests.
Ironically, the whitewash came despite a number of incidents of police brutalities having received widespread publicity.
A final blow
Beijing's decision to impose the national security law on Hong Kong is, therefore, the latest assault on the island city's autonomy.
The legislation will, among other things, allow the Chinese government to formally set up intelligence agencies inside Hong Kong. Most importantly, all of Hong Kong's administrative, legislative and judicial institutions will be forced to comply with Beijing's interpretation of national security and would be mandated to take action against activities that are perceived to be in violation of such an interpretation.
This directly threatens a whole spectrum of political activity in Hong Kong and may render most expressions of dissent as illegal. Pro-democracy activists like Joshua Wong, who have publicly called for support of the international community, would most likely face legal action.
Moreover, the manner in which the legislation is being rammed down on Hong Kong will also set a precedent for the NPC to directly enact laws for the city without being challenged.
It is no surprise that Hong Kongers have already hit the streets to protest this blatant attack on their freedoms. However, an increasingly hardline approach adopted by the Chinese authorities, coupled with the pandemic-related restrictions imposed by the local authorities, will make it harder for protestors to assert themselves.
Nonetheless, it is likely that Hong Kong will once again be engulfed by fierce confrontations in the weeks and months to come. Unless Beijing has a miraculous change of heart, its latest move will serve to be the final nail in the coffin for Hong Kong's political freedoms.
The author is a researcher at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi. He is an alumnus of the Jindal School of International Affairs and IIT Guwahati. He tweets @KamalMadishetty