The 44th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council became the site of competing international responses to China’s new national security law in Hong Kong. Two dueling statements were read back to back during the session last week, with Cuba representing a group of 53 states backing the new Chinese law and the United Kingdom speaking on behalf of 27 critical governments.
Beijing enacted the new legislation on June 30 after it was drafted and passed without input from the Hong Kong government or people. The 66 article law seeks to safeguard national security and “prevent, suppress, and impose punishment” for acts deemed to be secessionist, subversive, terrorist in nature or for collusion with foreign country or “external elements.” The heavy handed law significantly expands Beijing’s ability to investigate and pursue suspected criminals within the city of Hong Kong in ways that “one country, two systems” previously prevented. Michael C. Davis and Victoria Tin-bor Hui argue in The Diplomat that the new law has allowed the Beijing legal system to take over that of Hong Kong’s and can be used to criminalize dissent. On the first day of its implementation, which also fell on the anniversary of the handover of Hong Kong from the U.K. to China, 10 out of 370 people arrested were charged under the new legislation.
The United States was not a signatory to the critics’ statement, having announced its withdrawal from the UN Human Rights Council nearly two years ago. However, Washington has made its opposition clear in other ways. In addition to condemnation from U.S. leaders, the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives both unanimously passed a bill to impose mandatory sanctions on Chinese officials and police units that crack down on protesters, as well as banks funding activities that undermine the city’s independence. The bill is awaiting President Donald Trump’s signature to become law. Last week, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also announced visa restrictions on Chinese officials responsible for violating Hong Kong’s autonomy.
Separately, Taiwan opened an office to process applications for Hong Kongers seeking employment, study, or asylum on the island, a move that will likely further entrench cross-strait tensions.
The statement at the UN Human Rights Council backing the Chinese law emphasized each country’s right to enact legislation to safeguard its national security and framed the new law as abiding by China’s “one country, two systems.” It also added that Beijing’s move would ultimately benefit Hong Kong’s long-term prosperity. That matches rhetoric from Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam, who has expressed confidence that the law’s implementation would ease the city’s unrest and restore stability.
Meanwhile, critics “[urged] the Chinese and Hong Kong governments to reconsider the imposition of this legislation and to engage Hong Kong’s people, institutions and judiciary to prevent further erosion of the rights and freedoms that the people of Hong Kong have enjoyed for many years.” This statement’s signatories included Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Switzerland, and 15 European Union member states.
The full list of countries supporting the Hong Kong national security law: China, Antigua and Barbuda, Bahrain, Belarus, Burundi, Cambodia, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Comoros, Congo-Brazzaville, Cuba, Djibouti, Dominica, Egypt, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Gabon, Gambia, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Laos, Lebanon, Lesotho, Mauritania, Morocco, Mozambique, Myanmar, Nepal, Nicaragua, Niger, North Korea, Oman, Pakistan, Palestine, Papua New Guinea, Saudi Arabia, Sierra Leone, Somalia, South Sudan, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Suriname, Syria, Tajikistan, Togo, UAE, Venezuela, Yemen, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.
The countries opposing: Australia, Austria, Belgium, Belize*, Canada, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Iceland, Ireland, Germany, Japan, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Marshall Islands*, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Palau*, Slovakia, Slovenia, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom
(*Belize, Marshall Islands, and Palau still maintain official diplomatic relations with Taiwan).
Similarly, two other coalitions clashed over their position vis-à-vis China’s Xinjiang policies, manifest in letters submitted to the president of the UN Human Rights Council and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and rival statements delivered at the UN General Assembly last year. Of the more than 50 countries that backed China this time over the national security law, many are the same ones that signaled their support last year of China’s treatment of the Uyghurs, a Muslim ethnic group who predominantly reside in China’s western autonomous region of Xinjiang.
While many global governance institutions are conceptualized as fora for countries to consult on shared or transnational issues, some have opined that the UN system, built on the principle of sovereign equality, has become a site for competing notions of international order and norms. While contestation has previously been less public and taken place at different levels below the international level, China’s rising power and greater involvement in the UN may well have altered the vehicles through which diplomatic differences are aired. Still, this shift does not necessarily suggest any determined outcome from this contestation. What does seem clear, however, is that tensions between Hong Kong’s local identity and its relationship to Beijing are being increasingly internationalized.