Hong Kongers entered fight or flight mode on Friday, reacting with shock and anger to the Chinese parliament’s push to impose national security laws in the territory. While some vowed to fight against a move they fear will effectively end the international business hub’s autonomy, others planned to flee.
China announced on Thursday night that it would “establish and improve a legal framework and mechanism for safeguarding national security” in Hong Kong by legislating in the National People’s Congress, effectively bypassing the territory’s own legislature.
Many in Hong Kong said the announcement was a wake-up call that provided a fresh rallying point for a year-old anti-government movement that has lost its focus and dwindled amid the coronavirus pandemic and widespread despondency over the government’s intensifying clampdown.
Some said the law, which is almost certain to pass at China’s rubber-stamp National People’s Congress in coming days, has rekindled their fighting spirit.
“It’s time for the people to wake up. I am glad to see people around me starting to realise that the day has come,” a professional in his 30s who took part in last year’s protests told the Guardian.
“Come what may Hong Kongers’ won’t give up. This will only radicalise many of the rational type,” one commented in a chat group.
“While feeling there was nothing we could do but to watch Hong Kong die, this national security law came along and our fighting spirit has been rekindled,” said a post on LIHKG.com, a site popular with protesters in the anti-government movement.
China already warned in a 2014 policy white paper that it has “comprehensive jurisdiction” or “comprehensive power to rule” over Hong Kong. More recently, in the communique of a key Communist party meeting in November 2019, the Fourth Plenum, Beijing told the city to “perfect” its legal system to safeguard national security.
Lau Siu-kai, a vice-president of the central government’s top thinktank on Hong Kong, told a radio programme on Friday that the Chinese government had “no faith at all” in Hong Kong’s ability to legislate a security law to deal with the political crisis and “the sense of urgency has prompted China to turn around the situation”.
The millions-strong, increasingly violent pro-democracy protests of 2019 were sparked by a controversial extradition bill that could have seen individuals sent to China for trial shocked Beijing. Seeing Hong Kong’s upheavals as a potential national security threat and insisting that unrest was stirred by “foreign hostile forces” aiming to destabilise China, Beijing has repeatedly made it clear it wants new security legislation passed urgently.
Martin Lee, the founder of the Democratic party and a senior barrister who helped draft the Basic Law, was outraged. “How can the NPC legislate on our behalf? They are totally disregarding the Basic Law and ramming this through.”
The Basic Law is Hong Kong’s mini-constitution that is meant to safeguard its autonomy after the return to Chinese rule. Pro-democracy lawmakers blast the move for completely bypassing Hong Kong’s legislative process and say its spells the end of the “one country, two systems” policy that China promised in the Sino-British Joint Declaration in 1984.
Former legislator and veteran pro-democracy activist Lee Cheuk-yan told media the draft allowed Beijing to set up its own national security agency bureau in Hong Kong.
“This is the official start of ‘one country one system’,” said Tanya Chan, a pro-democracy lawmaker. The Democracy party chairman, Wu Chi-wai, said that when China can define what constitutes a crime Hong Kong will be relegated to the role of just the law enforcer.
On Friday, there was chaos for the third consecutive week in a key establishment-controlled committee of Hong Kong’s legislature, known as LegCo. Pro-democracy legislators crowded the dais, holding placards in protest of Beijing’s declaration.
For the third Friday in a row, legislators were physically removed from the room by security guards, before the meeting was suspended.
Some ordinary Hong Kongers say they will urgently look into emigration. “We’re sure to die. I will find a way to leave, but the most important thing is to send my kids away quick!” said a parent in a chat group.