Beijing’s Secret Police Rule Hong Kong Now

The new national security law effectively undercuts the city’s once great justice system.

Riot police hold up a warning flag during a demonstration in a mall in Hong Kong on July 6, in response to a new national security law introduced in the city that makes political views, slogans, and signs advocating Hong Kong's independence or liberation illegal.
Riot police hold up a warning flag during a demonstration in a mall in Hong Kong on July 6, in response to a new national security law introduced in the city that makes political views, slogans, and signs advocating Hong Kong's independence or liberation illegal. ISAAC LAWRENCE/AFP via Getty Images

Physically Hong Kong looks as it always did. But last Tuesday it changed irreversibly.

The city was once proud of its distinct British-derived legal system, which guaranteed the rights of residents—and provided a solid foundation for its commercial glory. That is being swept away. Despite predictions that Beijing would not be ready to enforce its new national security law in Hong Kong until the fall, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s government rushed the legislation, announced just six weeks ago, through the National People’s Congress. The measure took effect at 11 p.m. local time on June 30, sight unseen by those now subject to its dictates.

Hong Kong’s old legal rules no longer apply. Legislative interpretation will be up to China. A new enforcement office, a national security commission, will be established under “the supervision of the central government.” Chinese security agents will operate openly and officially in Hong Kong. Personnel will employ surveillance, including wiretaps, against suspects, who can be held without bail. Trials can be conducted in secret. Cases can be decided by judges rather than juries. Special jurists will be appointed by the territory’s chief executive, who in turn is effectively chosen by China. And offenders will in most cases be extradited to the mainland, where they will be tried and (inevitably) convicted and imprisoned.

What that means can be seen in the capital itself, where the professor Xu Zhangrun, one of the last remaining open critics of Xi-ism, was arrested on Monday. Xu has long been under house arrest, but the operation—to detain a 57-year-old academic—involved around 10 different police vehicles and 20 officers. The limited tolerance that Chinese leaders once extended to critics, at home or in Hong Kong, is gone, replaced only with thuggery under the barest guise of law.

In Hong Kong, the day after the law was introduced, nine people were arrested for violating Beijing’s rules. The first was a man waving a Hong Kong independence flag. Another was wearing a “Free Hong Kong” T-shirt and found to possess an independence banner. A woman was arrested for displaying a similar standard. Each action is considered “undermining national unification.”

Some 300 protesters also were arrested under Hong Kong law. But the police department warned protesters that chanting pro-independence slogans “may have breached” the new restrictions and announced that it would “take resolute enforcement action in accordance” with the legislation. Senior personnel were told that “anybody searched and found to have independence flags in their possession will be arrested,” according to CNN.

The law is “much worse” than predicted, in the view of Eric Cheung of the University of Hong Kong. He cited the measure’s extraterritorial reach, which “will really alarm all the foreigners and foreign investment and no one could now feel safe.” Seton Hall University’s Margaret Lewis argued that “whatever barrier there was between Hong Kong and the mainland has at best turned into a highly porous membrane.”

The law penalizes separatism, subversion, and terrorism—none narrowly defined. Advocating democracy or independence, and demonstrating without permission, could violate more than one provision. Also illegal would be “colluding with foreign and external forces to endanger national security,” which could mean most contacts with any foreigner, especially involving any criticism of China. The law even would apply to overseas activities by nonresidents and foreign nationals, making them subject to prosecution on entering Hong Kong or China. Penalties include up to life imprisonment.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam, who never saw the draft legislation, nevertheless assured residents that they had nothing to fear, that their “legitimate rights and freedoms” would be secure, the city’s judicial independence and “high degree of autonomy” would be respected, and only a few lawbreakers would be targeted. The pro-Beijing legislator Michael Tien insisted that “the intention is not for it to suffocate everyone.” Zhang Xiaoming, the executive deputy director of the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office, essentially deputy Gauleiter to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), said: “The purpose is not to take the pro-democratic camp in Hong Kong as an imaginary enemy. The purpose is combating a narrow category of crimes against national security.”

However, their reassurances were belied by their own assessments. For instance, Zhang explained that “different views” should not be used as “a pretext” to “turn Hong Kong into a safe haven of anti-China forces.” He told the press after the law took effect that suspects would be tried in China since the territory could not be expected to implement mainland laws—which apparently forbid wearing a pro-independence T-shirt and shouting a pro-independence slogan. Pro-Beijing apparatchiks even see the law as providing an opportunity for revenge. Former Hong Kong Chief Executive C.Y. Leung, battered by the 2014 Umbrella Revolution, went on Facebook to offer a bounty for tips identifying those who violate the new law.

National security laws have been important weapons in China’s repressive arsenal, explained Yaqiu Wang of Human Rights Watch: “The government has been abusing the laws. They target Chinese dissidents or Uighur activists with bogus charges. They use separatism or subversion to criminalize freedom of speech.” Hong Kong will be no different.

The Xi government will likely initiate a handful of well-publicized prosecutions of protest leaders. In fact, the Lam administration appeared to be taking this course a few months ago when it arrested a score of top activists, including Apple Daily publisher Jimmy Lai, based on dubious charges dating back to last year’s demonstrations. That was widely seen as an effort to capitalize on the COVID-19 pandemic, which had effectively shut down demonstrations. Now the mainland government can double down, even adding Beijing show trials, guaranteed convictions, brutal punishments, and lengthy sentences served in mainland prisons.

The threat of prosecution will not be limited to politics. Academic and artistic freedoms will inevitably be restricted. Labor activists fear that strikes will be targeted by Beijing. In view of the Xi regime’s fierce religious persecution on the mainland, faith groups fear prosecution as well. Even commercial activities will be affected. As the Financial Times reported in late June: “Investors, economists and analysts in Hong Kong fear a new national security law will increase self-censorship of research provided to clients, and will raise questions over the city’s future as a global financial hub.”

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian told other nations to “stop meddling with Hong Kong affairs and interfering with China’s internal politics.” However, the territory is an international concern, returned to Chinese rule based on public assurances to the United Kingdom and the rest of the international community to maintain Hong Kong’s autonomy.

Unfortunately, criticism by Western governments may have spurred rather than slowed passage of the law. There is no chance of convincing Beijing to reverse the measure. The official Xinhua News Agency insisted: “Beijing will not change its course of action to end chaos and violence in Hong Kong, protect national security and preserve the country’s sacred territorial integrity and sovereign rights simply because of U.S. pressure.” A climbdown would be politically impossible.

Sanctions will be no more effective than statements, especially penalties voted by the U.S. Congress against Chinese officials involved in the ongoing crackdown, who, in Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s words, are “believed to be responsible for, or complicit in, undermining Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy.” Denying CCP leaders visas might make legislators feel good—and make it appear that they are doing something—but will not change Chinese policy. (Beijing responded by imposing a visa ban on Americans who interfere with the new law. When asked who was subject to the prohibition, Zhao said, “Relevant people would know clearly themselves.”)

The United States and similarly inclined Western nations should adopt two strategies. The first has already been initiated by the U.K., which offered to create a pathway to citizenship for as many as 3 million Hong Kongers eligible to apply for British National (Overseas) passports.

Despite its perverse aversion to immigrants, the Trump administration should similarly offer residency, green cards, and the prospect of U.S. citizenship to all Hong Kongers. They and the United States would benefit. Japan, Australia, Canada, and European nations should adopt similar if more limited (in numbers) proposals. The objective would be simple: offer refuge to productive people who want to live in a free society but are vulnerable to Chinese government persecution. China would suffer by losing the same people.

Washington and its allies and partners also should end Hong Kong’s separate economic status. Unfortunately, doing so will hurt Hong Kongers. However, U.S. law provides for more liberal trade, investment, and visa treatment based on the presumption that the territory is autonomous with more liberal policies, genuinely separate from the mainland. That is clearly no longer the case.

Washington should encourage other Western states to take similar measures. No one is going to abandon commerce with Beijing over mistreatment of what is universally recognized as part of China. The objective would be to prevent Beijing from benefiting from continued treatment of Hong Kong as a liberal oasis. Although engagement remains the only realistic policy toward China, the United States and other democracies should confront it for violating its international commitments involving Hong Kong. Despite its angry rhetoric, China has no cause for complaint: Hong Kong would be treated like any other Chinese city.

The economic impact on China would be real but not devastating. Today the territory only accounts for about 3 percent of Chinese GDP. Hong Kong is more important as a base for Chinese wealth management, Western firms, and international finance. Thus, losing Hong Kong’s special status would reduce foreign investment in China. The impact likely would be intensified by ongoing U.S. and allied efforts to encourage economic decoupling. Although the price would not be high enough to change Beijing’s treatment of the territory, at least the Xi regime would have to pay for its broken commitments.

While stripping Hong Kong of its preferential status, the Trump administration should look for a mutually acceptable off-ramp for Beijing. For example, if China issued prosecution guidelines dramatically narrowing the law’s scope, the United States could reverse course. And Washington could pledge to keep any celebration of the Chinese retreat low-key. Perhaps a modus vivendi still could be found to preserve Hong Kong’s unique liberties. China has found that free-thinking people with access to independent information almost always—and nearly unanimously—reject rule by Xi and the CCP. No amount of propaganda will change that. So now the Xi regime has decided to enforce its tyranny on residents of Hong Kong in the same way as it rules over the mainland—with brutal repression.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. A former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is the author of several books, including Tripwire: Korea and U.S. Foreign Policy in a Changed World.