Foreign Affairs

Get ready for some repression

How authoritarian rule is applied to Hong Kong may make New Zealanders question whether closer interactions with China are necessarily desirable, writes Dr Catherine Churchman

Get ready for some in-your-face political repression, New Zealand. The People's Republic of China (PRC) has just extended its draconian rules on free speech and freedom of assembly to the people of Hong Kong, and the rest of the world to boot.

If you have not been distracted by other news, you’ll have noticed that the Law of the People’s Republic of China on Safeguarding National Security in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region was imposed on Hong Kong just over a week ago. Approved under urgency by Beijing, it was signed off by Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping, bypassing the local legislature in Hong Kong altogether.

The new legislation criminalises four general categories of activity under maximum threat of life imprisonment: terrorism, secessionism, subversion of state power, and collusion with foreign powers.

"Terrorism is the crime with the most specific definition, aimed at preventing the disruptive tactics used by protestors in Hong Kong over the previous year."

“Secessionism” refers to supporting or advocating for independence for Hong Kong, or for greater political autonomy from that already granted by Beijing.

“Subversion of state power” is frequently used in the Chinese Mainland as an excuse to imprison those who advocate or discuss an end to Communist Party monopolisation of power or the transition to a democratic system in China, like the group arrested earlier this year in Xiamen.

“Collusion with a foreign country or with external elements” could refer to any kind of contact with foreigners that draws Beijing’s displeasure, but it’s difficult to know as the precise boundaries between legal and illegal activities have been intentionally kept vague. Disturbingly, the new body applying the law, known as the Committee for Safeguarding National Security is going to be able to work in secret and will not be subject to any legal challenges.

Before you think this is someone else’s problem, by a spectacular display of overreach, Article 38 of the new legislation states that technically everyone, everywhere in the world is subject to it as well.

The PRC claims that the law is necessary to prevent a repeat of the civil unrest that had continued in Hong Kong for over a year. This began with opposition in April 2019 to a proposed bill that would have allowed extraditions for trial under the PRC’s own legal system, rather than the independent (and less feared) system in Hong Kong.

The Hong Kong government ignored the initial, mostly peaceful protests for withdrawal of the extradition bill, but these were met with a brutal reaction from the Hong Kong police, resulting in an escalation of violence from both police and protestors. The PRC eagerly emphasised the violent actions of the protestors (but not the police) in its state-controlled media, and also sponsored social media disinformation campaigns painting the protestors as dangerous extremists.

However, what the protestors believed in or wanted from their government was hardly extreme. In June, they began to circulate their list of five political demands. The first four demands were related to grievances around government heavy-handedness in dealing with the original anti-extradition protests. The fifth was for nothing more than the extension of universal suffrage in elections for the Hong Kong Legislative Council and the position of Chief Executive. The right to choose their own government was something that had never been granted to Hongkongers, by the United Kingdom or the PRC. Even so, before the imposition of the National Security Law, Hong Kong was the last place in China where Chinese had the right to publicly criticise their own government and China’s as a whole. Now even that right is denied them.

The enactment of the National Security Law reflects the conviction of the current Chinese Communist Party leadership that it has an unquestioned right to rule China free from any criticism, and to crush opposition and dissent anywhere, by any means it pleases. It certainly does not want a successful, functioning democracy coming into existence in Hong Kong to set an example those elsewhere China might wish to follow.

Hong Kong is connected to the outside world in multiple ways. Not only is it a hub of business, tourism and trade, but it is also a home to large expatriate communities, and the origin of a substantial international diaspora. In the Mainland, the Chinese Communist Party can violate the basic human rights of detractors and minorities with impunity and minimised foreign scrutiny, but what happens in Hong Kong will be much more visible and widely known in the outside world.

It is good to see our Government going beyond mere expressions of concern about the imposition of this new law in taking concrete action to review the extradition agreement between New Zealand and Hong Kong. This agreement needs to be immediately suspended, particularly in view of the potential offered by Article 38 for the arrest of New Zealanders. A further step in the right direction would be to follow Australia, the UK and Taiwan in offering asylum to Hongkongers in danger of persecution for their political beliefs.

Over the long term, being able to observe the way authoritarian rule is extended to the people of Hong Kong may help more New Zealanders come to a better understanding of the nature and ambitions of the Chinese Communist Party in the world at large, and they may come to question whether ever closer interactions between New Zealand and the PRC are necessarily inevitable or desirable. What happens in Hong Kong may even end up making it politically unacceptable for New Zealand politicians to express respect or praise for the Chinese Communist Party, or explain away the negative aspects of its rule with platitudes.

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