What future for Hong Kong under China’s new National Security law?

For the people of Hong Kong, recent nights have not brought much sleep. On May 28th, the National People’s Assembly, the closest thing to a Chinese parliament, passed the National Security law, to be introduced to the city’s Constitution without consultation with either its government or its citizens.

The new law, targeting issues of terrorism and secession, as well as any act implicitly or explicitly aimed at attracting foreign interference in China’s internal affairs, is likely to become the new legal ground to prosecute pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong. In the eyes of many, including the U.S. Secretary of State Mark Pompeo, this is the end of the autonomy afforded to Hong Kong under the ‘One Country Two Systems’ framework.  

Although certainly distressing, the news was not entirely unexpected. The law had been on the Chinese agenda since 2003 and was presented to the city’s Legislative Council on several occasions, only to be endlessly postponed due to mass demonstrations. After one year of protests, with Xi Jinping’s image strengthened both in China and abroad thanks to the effective handling of the pandemic, the time was perfect for the Chinese government to finally sort out the Hong Kong issue.

However predictable, the law is still bad news for those who hoped for a democratic Hong Kong: “We dreamed of Taiwan but will end up as a new Macao,” say activists of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University. A powerful image, evoking the range of possible positionings of China’s semi-autonomous regions surrounding Beijing: Taiwan, the democratic and de facto independent “renegade province” on one side, and Macao, the former-Portuguese colony that enjoys Hong Kong’s same degree of autonomy but never makes the news, on the other.

Although both Hong Kong and Macao – and technically Taiwan – are included in the doctrine “one country, two systems”, their historical and development trajectories made them quite different interlocutors in Beijing’s eyes.

In the case of Macao, at the time of the handover those who did not want to submit to Chinese Communist hegemony were allowed to leave and move to Europe. The UK, on the other hand, denied full British citizenship to the people of Hong Kong where civil resistance to Beijing’s encroachments became an existential issue. Besides, due to the different development trajectories Macao is economically more dependent on the mainland than Hong Kong, whose main financial partners are Western democracies. As a result, the civil society movement is virtually non-existent in Macao: an alluring vision for the Chinese leadership who may be planning to level out the differences between the two.

But Hong Kong’s response could be violent: “We must firmly oppose the new law; it is essential not to lose momentum” – say PolyU students. Demosistō, the party founded by Joshua Wong and the other students who led the pro-democracy demonstrations in 2014, in an online appeal to the international community, stressed the need to continue to manifest dissent in any form.

A tug-of-war between the central government and the protesters will probably define the city’s near future. A key variable could be the international response to the issue: The United States has been a strenuous defender of Hong Kong’s autonomy, but as domestic dissent escalates, the Trump administration may be too preoccupied with protests within the USA to defend those protesting abroad.

However, some Hongkongers are convinced, the city will retain a certain degree of autonomy: “Hong Kong is more important to China than China is to Hong Kong”. Cracking down on the civil society may save the Communist Party’s face by restoring a sense of order in the region. But in the long run, China may want to keep on benefiting from Hong Kong as a privileged trading hub, especially in the light of growing rifts with the United States. If that is the case, Beijing may have to silently renegotiate its position.