Life in Hong Kong will be utterly changed as Beijing prepares to rush through the national security law

As China is set to complete the legislation of the National Security Law for Hong Kong before July 1, concerns are being expressed as more details of the law and its potential impact on Hong Kong’s future emerge. Hong Kong political veteran Margaret Ng thinks that all details of the law should be viewed as an organic whole and it’s about to utterly change lives in Hong Kong. She predicts in the short term, Hong Kong is going to suffer a great deal as it gets caught between the larger geopolitical conflict between China and the world.

Question: How do you assess the impact of the new details of the national security law on Hong Kong?

Margaret Ng: There are requirements for the Hong Kong SAR to more or less reorganize its government departments under this national security committee, and these requirements are to position it in such a way as to carry out the directives from the central authorities in the name of national security.

The national security agency is basically the representative of the central authority that’s stationed in Hong Kong, and it has the power to give orders and instructions to the national security committee. It is carrying out the direct command from Beijing and it means you have a direct route of the Hong Kong SAR by the CCP.

This is one country, one system, and it is the structure of it. From the roles and responsibilities for the Hong Kong government and the national security commission, it is very detailed and inclusive. It includes all the important departments. For the central agency, it can command the Hong Kong government to do anything, including enforcement of the law and sharing intelligence. This is the most important part.

The Hong Kong government has become the agency of the central authorities. The enforcers of the law are the Hong Kong police working under the direction of the national security agency, and when it comes to prosecution, the chief executive has the power to appoint judges to handle national security cases. In effect, this is a special court, because the court will only be made up by judges appointed by the chief executive.

You can imagine the chief executive will not have her own idea about what judges are suitable so it will be Beijing’s idea to appoint which judges to handle national security cases, and it will be done through the chief executive. That immediately undermines the entire judicial independence. Traditionally, the judiciary has power to handle its own cases, and you don’t choose what judge to handle your case.

Once you are able to choose which judges to handle the case, then you no longer have any judicial independence. I think that’s quite obvious. There have been some arguments about whether this will undermine Hong Kong’s judicial independence, and the former chief justice Andrew Li said it would. However, Carrie Lam said “don’t be silly, because the Chief Executive already appoints judges to various tribunals and so on.”

This is utterly nonsense. As for the crimes defined under the national security law, they are pervasive because it will infringe on people’s freedom of speech and freedom of peaceful assembly. Anything which is an incitement or conspiracy to do so will be enough for them to be prosecuted. Also, now anyone who interacts with foreign governments could be viewed as “colluding with foreign power.”

These are four wide and serious crimes and each can be linked to writing, speaking, and civil actions. The law provides the basis for you to interfere with Hong Kong people’s lives, and you can have the central agency to direct Hong Kong commission, which will carry out its orders. This is a complete plan and it’s not just one feature that is obnoxious. All these parts work together to form an organic whole and it will utterly change lives in Hong Kong.

Question: What is your view on how China has been handling the legislative process of the national security law?

Margaret Ng: That’s why I refuse to call this a law, because this is not a legislative process. When you intend to pass laws, which would affect the lives of 7 million people in a very serious way, you make sure you have open consultation, you listen to opinions and you are ready to modify the content of it.

This whole process that China has been handling the law is secretive because Beijing doesn’t want to hear any objection and they don’t want to give anyone a chance to criticize the law. I think it is quite typical and this is how Beijing does things.

Beijing only wants to impose something, which is already made and can’t be changed. That’s why I won’t call it a law, because it’s just an extension of false. It is naked power. If you think of it in terms of naked power, you would expect that it’s done secretively and prevents any kind of different views.

In Hong Kong, the legislative council would normally publish a consultation paper, telling people what they are about to do so people can express their views. When they have enough support, they publish a bill that’s the draft law. Again, you table the draft law in the legislature and let people to come express their views. Then the clauses were discussed and the legislature would also go into details of the law.

All of these will take time, because consultation takes time. The fact that the whole process was rushed means they want to cut out consultation. Beijing has no confidence that consultation will get them the support that they want. They have every reason to believe that if they consult, they will get the opposite of support.

Question: There are also concerns that the national security law would be used to dictate the upcoming legislative council election, as the timing that they plan to pass the law coincides with the nomination period for the election. Is interfering with the outcome of the legislative council election part of the political implication of the national security law?

Margaret Ng: I think the national security law would provide the basis to disqualify candidates, so they are confident that very few democrats will be allowed to run in the election. A few months ago, one of the things that was discussed very widely that worries Beijing is the possibility of the democrats getting the majority seats in the Legislative Council.

Beijing can’t prevent millions of people from voting, but they can remove candidates by disqualifying them. I think this is why the national security law will be used as a reason to disqualify people they are most worried about. The question is how many can they disqualify.

Question: Since last year, we have seen thousands of Hong Kong people being charged and prosecuted for their involvement in last year’s protest, including yourself and 14 other democratic figures. There are concerns that when the national security law comes into effect, the future of the city will be bleak. What is your view on the future of Hong Kong with the national security law in place? Are there still ways for Hong Kong people to resist?

Margaret Ng: Even before the national security law was introduced, the determination and resolution to encroach Hong Kong’s way of life is enough to tell the world that we have started a whole new chapter for Hong Kong. Rather, they have ended a chapter for Hong Kong, because they are quite open with the determination to control Hong Kong directly.

The protests that we have been going through last year will now be even more difficult. In fact, there will be even less room for any kind of moderate stand, and Hong Kong will be facing a very critical period. It’s difficult for me to predict what’s going to happen, but I think all this has come about because the central authorities believe there are protests because they have not been hard enough in suppressing Hong Kong people.

This is the opposite. Now that they have increased the suppression, I think the younger generation will be even more determined to protest and resist. The call for Hong Kong to separate from China will become even stronger. Of course, the Central government will exert greater power. We are going to witness a very unstable Hong Kong.

Question: What do you think are the roles of the international community in China’s growing pressure campaign against Hong Kong?

Margaret Ng: I think from the response of the international community, they have woken up to the fact that they have to take very strong actions to stop China’s way of extending its dictatorship over Hong Kong. From the statements that they have released, I don’t see any softening. I think they have been struggling between the political importance of protecting these values in Hong Kong and access to the Chinese market.

I think the international community has come to a decision that you can have no long term economic advantage if you allow Hong Kong’s values to be undermined. If you have a state who would openly go back on its obligation like the Joint Declaration, there is no way you can have a civilized relationship with that state. I think the international community’s strength will be a very important factor.

It may not help Hong Kong in the short run, because neither of them would pull punches. Hong Kong is now caught in the middle of this geopolitical conflict and the city is going to suffer a great deal at least in the short term.

William Yang is a journalist based in Taiwan, where he writes about politics, society, and human rights issues in China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong.