Foreign Policy Watch: India-China

UN panel tells Hong Kong to repeal National Security Law

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From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Honkong, Taiwan

Mains level : Honkong, Taiwan issue

Hong Kong’s controversial national security law should be repealed, experts on the UN Human Rights Committee said, amid concerns the legislation is being used to crack down on free speech and dissent in the former British colony.

Why in news?

  • Chinese and Hong Kong officials have repeatedly used the NSL imposed by Beijing in 2020 to restore stability after the city was rocked for months by sometimes violent anti-government and anti-China protests in 2019.
  • The committee, which monitors the implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) by state parties, released its findings on Hong Kong following a periodic review.
  • The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region is a signatory to the ICCPR but China is not.

About Hong Kong

  • A former British Colony and Autonomous Territory: Hong Kong is an autonomous territory, and a former British colony, in south-eastern China.
  • It became a colony of the British Empire at the end of the First Opium War in 1842.
  • Sovereignty over the territory was returned to China in 1997.
  • Special Administrative Region (SAR): As a SAR, Hong Kong maintains governing power and economic systems that are separate from those of mainland China.
  • The 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration guarantees the Basic Law for 50 years after the transfer of sovereignty.
  • It does not specify how Hong Kong will be governed after 2047.
  • Thus, the central government’s role in determining the territory’s future system of government is the subject of political debate and speculation in Hong kong.

What is this law all about?

  • Hong Kong was always meant to have a security law, but could never pass one because it was so unpopular.
  • So this is about China stepping in to ensure the city has a legal framework to deal with what it sees as serious challenges to its authority.
  • The details of the law’s 66 articles were kept secret until after it was passed. It criminalises any act of:
  1. Secession – breaking away from the country
  2. Subversion – undermining the power or authority of the central government
  3. Terrorism – using violence or intimidation against people
  4. Collusion–  with foreign or external forces

What provisions do fall under the law?

  • The law came into effect at 23:00 local time on 30 June 2020, an hour before the 23rd anniversary of the city’s handover to China from British rule.
  • It gives Beijing power to shape life in Hong Kong it has never had before.
  • Its key provisions include:
  1. Crimes of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces are punishable by a maximum sentence of life in prison
  2. Damaging public transport facilities can be considered terrorism
  3. Those found guilty will not be allowed to stand for public office
  4. Companies can be fined if convicted under the law
  5. This office can send some cases to be tried in mainland China – but Beijing has said it will only have that power over a “tiny number” of cases
  6. In addition, Hong Kong will have to establish its own national security commission to enforce the laws, with a Beijing-appointed adviser
  7. Hong Kong’s chief executive will have the power to appoint judges to hear national security cases, raising fears about judicial autonomy
  8. Importantly, Beijing will have power over how the law should be interpreted, not any Hong Kong judicial or policy body. If the law conflicts with any Hong Kong law, the Beijing law takes priority
  9. Some trials will be heard behind closed doors.
  10. People suspected of breaking the law can be wire-tapped and put under surveillance
  11. Management of foreign non-governmental organizations and news agencies will be strengthened
  12. The law will also apply to non-permanent residents and people “from outside [Hong Kong]… who are not permanent residents of Hong Kong“.

What has changed in Hong Kong since the law was introduced?

  • Hundreds of protestors, activists and former opposition lawmakers have been arrested since the law came into force.
  • The arrests are an ominous sign that its crackdown on Hong Kong is only going to escalate.
  • Beijing has said the law is needed to bring stability to the city, but critics say it is designed to squash dissent.

Why did China do this?

  • Hong Kong was handed back to China from British control in 1997.
  • But under a unique agreement – a mini-constitution called the Basic Law and a so-called “one country, two systems” principle.
  • They are supposed to protect certain freedoms for Hong Kong: freedom of assembly and speech, an independent judiciary and some democratic rights – freedoms that no other part of mainland China has.
  • Under the same agreement, Hong Kong had to enact its own national security law – this was set out in Article 23 of the Basic Law – but it never happened because of its unpopularity.

How can China do this?

  • Many might ask how China can do this if the city was supposed to have freedoms guaranteed under the handover agreement.
  • The Basic Law says Chinese laws can’t be applied in Hong Kong unless they are listed in a section called Annex III – there are already a few listed there, mostly uncontroversial and around foreign policy.
  • These laws can be introduced by decree – which means they bypass the city’s parliament.
  • Critics say the introduction of the law this way amounts to a breach of the “one country, two systems” principle, which is so important to Hong Kong – but clearly, it is technically possible to do this.

Must read:

[Burning Issue] National Security Law debate in Hong Kong

 

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