The Debate | Opinion

National Security Laws in General Are Not a Problem. Hong Kong’s Is.

Many countries have national security laws. The central question lies in whether the laws primarily protect national security or suffocate civil and political liberties.

By Larry C. B. Lai and Debby S. W. Chan for
National Security Laws in General Are Not a Problem. Hong Kong’s Is.
Credit: Flickr/ Studio Incendo

For those who do not know a good deal about the People’s Republic of China (PRC), and its political relationship with its Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR), Hong Kong people’s opposition to the National Security Law may sound counterintuitive, or even odd. After all, many countries, including many liberal democracies, have national security laws; what is more, it’s plainly straightforward to believe that nobody in a country can remain safe when their country is not. While national security laws in a broad sense can be justifiable and even necessary, in the context of China and Hong Kong there are serious problems with the law and its enactment process. That is the source of the opposition.

First of all, the imminent adoption of the Hong Kong national security law is not enacted by the Hong Kong legislature. According to Article 23 of the Hong Kong Basic Law, the mini-constitution that lays down the basic constitutional framework of the HKSAR, the city shall enact laws on its own to prohibit acts that endanger national security, including treason, secession, sedition, and subversion. But what is happening now is that the PRC’s National People’s Congress (NPC) has bypassed the HKSAR’s lawmaking body. Pro-Beijing politicians justified the NPC’s decision by blaming the HKSAR’s failed attempt to pass the National Security Bill in 2003 following a large-scale peaceful street protest. However, such a decision not only nullified the local legislation requirement under Article 23, but also overturned the PRC’s promise to uphold the “one country, two systems” framework in Hong Kong. The present national security law could enable a national security agency to operate in Hong Kong, exacerbating citizens’ fear.

Second, the very notion of “national security” for the PRC equates to “regime security of the Chinese Communist Party.” The PRC’s National Security Law (2015) stipulated in Article 1 that the law not only serves to protect national sovereignty, but also “safeguard the regime of people’s democratic dictatorship and the socialist system with Chinese characteristics.” Across the years, we have witnessed how Chinese human rights activists and dissidents have been punished for subverting the CCP’s power. The late Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo, who advocated political reform and human rights protection by drafting Charter 08, was charged with subversion and sentenced to 11 years of imprisonment in 2008. Also in 2008, activist Tan Zouren, who wrote several commentaries on the Tiananmen Massacre, was given a five-year jail term for inciting subversion; many believed that the prosecution was prompted by his investigation into the quality of school construction in the aftermath of the Sichuan earthquake. Lawyer Wang Quanzhang was sentenced to four years and a half in jail for subversion amid the crackdown on human rights lawyers in 2015. After being released from jail, Wang insisted that he committed no crime. Pastor Wang Yi, who ran an unauthorized church, was sentenced to nine years’ imprisonment for inciting subversion in 2019.

Like thunder before the storm, the Hong Kong June Fourth candlelight vigil was officially barred even before the enactment of the national security law. For the past 30 years, Victoria Park has been filled with a sea of candles on every anniversary of the Tiananmen Massacre. Participants called for justice for the victims and political prisoners, democratic reform, and the end of one-party rule in China. The mass gatherings have demonstrated the people’s conscience as well as the status of Hong Kong as a free city. This year, the police rejected the organizer’s application for assembly, citing public health concerns despite the fact that normal work arrangements have resumed and schools have reopened. The legal status of the candlelight vigil organizer will be in limbo after the national security law takes effect. Other peaceful demonstrations that are critical of the HKSAR and PRC governments could also be rejected in the near future.

Third, and more profoundly, we can already see how the national security law will further strengthen state power and suppresses Hong Kong citizens’ basic liberty. In their latest book, entitled The Narrow Corridor: States, Societies, and the Fate of Liberty, Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson argue that liberty can only exist and flourish when both the state and the society remain strong, so that each can protect the wellbeing of the people, and prevent the dominance of and over each other. Nevertheless, not all societies are lucky enough to have a balance between the state and society to enable liberty to thrive. In the view of Acemoglu and Robinson, the Chinese society under the Communist Party is one that lives with a Despotic Leviathan: it not only tyrannizes its people, but the society and the people have no say regarding how its power and capacity are exercised. They write, “It isn’t that China’s state is despotic because it sends its citizens to reeducation camps. It sends people to camps because it can, and it can because it is despotic, unrestrained by – and unaccountable to – society.” The national security law in Hong Kong, in this light, appears to be another case in which the Despotic Leviathan extends its oppression to the Hong Kong society, and thereby suppresses people’s liberty.

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It was just last year, after months of protests, both civil and uncivil, that the HKSAR government finally withdrew the proposed extradition bill. If the controversial law had passed, the PRC could demand the HKSAR to extradite suspects to the mainland to face trial. The case illustrates that a vibrant society is vital to restrain the government’s unpopular actions to some extent. To safeguard Hong Kong’s liberty, citizens have also been calling for an independent commission of inquiry to look into police operations, amnesty for protesters, and universal suffrage. Instead of de-escalating the political crisis by positively responding to public demands, Beijing chose to tighten its grip on Hong Kong through imposing the national security law.

Scappa, che arriva la patria” (“Run away, the fatherland is coming”) is a quote from an Italian peasant woman to her son in Eric Hobsbawm’s The Age of Empire 1875-1914. The quote best captures what a considerable number of Hong Kong people are thinking as they scramble to leave the place they call home: They are working out plans to emigrate, they are sending their children overseas, and they are opening and sending their savings to offshore bank accounts. And it is now not difficult to understand why. The entire national security law enactment primarily aims to protect the Communist regime; it will strengthen the state but suffocate the Hong Kong society. When liberty, the very defining feature of Hong Kong, is eroding, can Hong Kong still be Hong Kong?

Larry C. B. Lai is an honorary lecturer and teaching assistant in the Department of Politics and Public Administration at the University of Hong Kong. Debby S. W. Chan is a post-doctoral fellow in the Department of Sociology at the University of Hong Kong. Both authors are Hong Kong natives.