“One Country Two Systems” - China Prepares to Drop This For Hong Kong
China’s National Security Law for Hong Kong, which was promulgated on June 30, prominently reiterates that Beijing is wedded to the “One Country, Two Systems” principle. But Beijing’s past actions and the developing geo-political and geo-strategic situation in the Asia-Pacific region, do not lend credence to the reiterated pledge. All indications are that, before long, the patently untenable principle will be thrown overboard.
The opening paragraph of the law, which has received heavy flak from Western democracies for the way it has abridged the rights of the people of Hong Kong, says that it is meant for “ensuring the resolute, full and faithful implementation of the policy of One Country, Two Systems under which the people of Hong Kong administer Hong Kong with a high degree of autonomy; while safeguarding national security; preventing, suppressing and imposing punishment for the offences of secession, subversion, organization and perpetration of terrorist activities, and collusion with a foreign country or with external elements to endanger national security in relation to the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR).”
It further says that human rights shall be respected and protected in safeguarding national security as stated in the Basic Law. The rights and freedoms, including the freedoms of speech, of the press, of publication, of association, of assembly, of procession and of demonstration, which the residents of the Hong Kong enjoy under the Basic Law and the provisions of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights as applied to Hong Kong, shall be protected.
Article 5 says: “A person is presumed innocent until convicted by a judicial body. The right to defend himself or herself and other rights in judicial proceedings that a criminal suspect, defendant, and other parties in judicial proceedings are entitled to under the law, shall be protected.”
As regards punishments under the new law, there is no death sentence. The maximum punishment is life imprisonment. The law states that a person who is a principal offender or a person who commits an offence of a grave nature shall be sentenced to life imprisonment or a fixed-term imprisonment of not less than ten years; a person who actively participates in the offence shall be sentenced to fixed-term imprisonment of not less than three years but not more than ten years; and other participants shall be sentenced to fixed-term imprisonment of not more than three years, short-term detention or restriction.
Be that as it may, the new law also gives the Central government in Beijing over-riding powers over the Hong Kong Establishment. “The Central People’s Government has an overarching responsibility for national security affairs relating to the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR),” the law says.
The Chief Executive of Hong Kong shall be accountable to the Central government for affairs relating to national security in Hong Kong and shall submit an annual report on it. There shall be a Committee for Safeguarding National Security which shall be under the supervision of and accountable to the Central government. Decisions made by the Committee shall not be amenable to judicial review. The Committee shall have a National Security Adviser, who will be designated by the Central government.
Article 16 says that the Hong Kong police shall establish a Department for Safeguarding National Security, which may recruit qualified professionals and technical personnel from the Mainland. There shall be a separate prosecution division for offences under the law and a special unrestricted fund.
Among the crimes listed under “subversion” are: seriously interfering in, disrupting, or undermining the performance of duties and functions in accordance with the law by public servants of China and Hong Kong; and attacking or damaging the premises and facilities used by the officials. Seeking foreign assistance to commit an act of subversion or terror is banned.
Among the listed terrorist activities are: Sabotage of means of transport, transport facilities, electric power or gas facilities, serious interruption or sabotage of electronic control systems for providing and managing public services such as water, electric power, gas, transport, telecommunications and the internet; or other dangerous activities which seriously jeopardize public health, safety or security.
Although China promised to observe the “One Country, Two Systems” principle when it took over Hong Kong from Britain in 1997, it has been trying to abridge Hong Kong’s autonomy since 2003.
The reasons for this are: First; the two systems are not compatible. Second; China has been feeling increasingly threatened by the West led by the US. The West has been extremely uncomfortable with Beijing’s power projections in the Indo-Pacific region. It sees China’s infrastructure projects under the ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) as a determined bid to dislodge it from dominant positions in various parts of the world. Given the West’s stridently anti-China moves on the strategic and economic plane, Beijing has been feeling he need to tighten its grip over weak links like Hong Kong where Western influence is strongest.
Inherently uncomfortable with the “One Country, Two Systems” concept, Beijing tried to outlaw speech, assemblies, or political activities endangering China’s security in 2003. But mass protests led to the Act’s withdrawal. Explaining the clashing stances of Beijing and the Hong Kongers, Brian Wong and John Mak wrote in Time last year: “Beijing took the stance that democratization in Hong Kong must be accompanied by the guarantee that any such progress would not threaten China’s national security, while the Hong Kong public gradually developed the antagonistic perception that Beijing was reluctant to grant the city genuine political freedom.”
The attempt to substitute Cantonese by Mandarin as the official language of Hong Kong, the building of high speed rail links with mainland China and the big influx of Mainland Chinese into Hong Kong created fears of demographic change and cultural annihilation.
Hong Kongers also wanted universal suffrage (as promised in the 1997 Basic Law) in place of choosing the territory’s leadership by an electoral college of 1,200 carefully screened persons. But for Beijing, instantaneous universal suffrage was dangerous as Chinese leaders were scared of instability and uncertainty which free elections could bring about. In 2010, a compromise was struck by which, universal suffrage would be introduced by 2017 but with the candidates being vetted by Beijing.
To change the anti-China mindset of the people, the Hong Kong government introduced “Moral and National Education (MNE)”. But this was dubbed as “brainwashing”, and the program had to be withdrawn. However, on Aug. 31, 2014, Beijing issued a White Paper in which stringent selection criteria for electoral candidatures were stipulated. This triggered the 79-day mass “Umbrella Movement.” The latest law has reinstated the ideological education program, giving a hint that more tough measures could follow.
In 2019 came the Extradition Law by which a trouble maker could be whisked away to the Mainland for interrogation. Following huge protests, this move was given up.
The new law has triggered a mass protest in Hong Kong and exacerbated relations with the West. While the US is mulling sanctions against China and Hong Kong, hundreds poured into the streets of Hong Kong on July 1 calling for the liberation of Hong Kong from China, thus openly defying the new law.
Given the present aggressive and defiant mood in Beijing, the strident opposition to the law might hasten the total absorption of Hong Kong by China well before the deadline of 2047.