Hong Kong’s national security law: why the rush?  

The top echelon of China’s parliament is convening for the second time in less than two weeks. For a body that normally meets every other month, the extraordinary session of the National People’s Congress Standing Committee is a sign that it has urgent business to attend to.

The pressing business at hand concerns Hong Kong. The NPC is racing to finalise and pass a contentious national security law for Hong Kong that could come into force before Wednesday, the 23rd anniversary of the former British colony’s return to Chinese sovereignty.

It was only six weeks ago that the NPC, a rubber-stamp body that follows dictates laid down by the ruling Chinese Communist party, shocked Hong Kong and the international community with the news that it intended to impose the law on the Chinese territory. To pass such an important piece of legislation so rapidly is extremely rare.

So why the hurry?

Chinese officials believe the national security law is needed to counter the pro-democracy movement that erupted in Hong Kong in June last year — as well as “foreign forces” that they claim are supporting the protests. The initial trigger for a series of large-scale demonstrations, including one protest that attracted almost 2m people, was a controversial extradition bill that would have allowed Hong Kong residents to be tried in mainland Chinese courts for certain crimes.

The bill was abandoned but the protests continued as demonstrators broadened their demands to include direct elections for Hong Kong’s chief executive, who is selected every five years by a 1,200-member committee dominated by pro-Beijing members.

President Xi Jinping’s administration is also worried that pro-Beijing political parties will lose their dominance in Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, or Legco, when it holds its next election in September. The national security law could help the Hong Kong government, headed by Carrie Lam, disqualify at least some pro-democracy candidates.

How draconian is the new law?

It is hard to know for sure because a draft of the new law has not been released, even though it is only days away from formal passage. Elsie Leung, a former head of Hong Kong’s justice department and a leading member of the city’s pro-Beijing establishment, recently told local media that releasing a draft might have triggered more protests.

Instead, the NPC and China’s official Xinhua news agency have released just two summaries of the new legislation that omit important details, such as the maximum penalties for crimes including subversion, secession and “collusion” with foreign forces.

These summaries have made it clear that Chinese state security agencies will be allowed for the first time to operate openly in Hong Kong. They will also have jurisdiction over “a very small number of crimes that endanger national security in certain circumstances”.

It remains to be seen whether these circumstances will be clearly defined in the new law — and whether Chinese jurisdiction will involve extradition of suspects to the mainland for trial.

What most worries opponents of the new legislation?

As described by the NPC and Xinhua, the national security law signals two big changes to the “one country, two systems” formula under which Hong Kong is supposed to govern its own affairs, save those related to foreign affairs and defence.

The first is a blurring of the “two systems” distinction by giving Chinese authorities jurisdiction over certain Hong Kong national security cases. China will also establish a national security agency in Hong Kong — the head of which will arguably be the territory’s most powerful person — and appoint a representative to a national security committee chaired by Ms Lam.

The second point marks a departure from the previously strict separation between Ms Lam’s administration and the judiciary. Ms Lam will appoint judges who will be eligible to preside over national security-related trials. All judicial assignments have previously been handled by the judiciary.

What happens next?

July 1 is an official holiday in Hong Kong, meant to celebrate the anniversary of its return to Chinese sovereignty in 1997. But it has instead become a day associated with pro-democracy protests.

This year’s protest marches will almost certainly not be allowed by police on social distancing grounds, which ban gatherings of more than 50 people. However, on June 4 tens of thousands of people defied a police ban to mark the 31st anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing.

On Wednesday, there could be an even greater display of defiance.