Requiem for Hong Kong

A few weeks ago, in Hong Kong’s Saddest Day, we echoed legislator Tanya Chan’s sentiment after China’s rubber-stamp National People’s Congress announced it would enact national security legislation for the city.  As sad as that fateful May 21 was, we warned “the days ahead could be much sadder” for Hong Kong. Unfortunately, that prediction has come to pass. On June 30, the Law of the People’s Republic of China on Safeguarding National Security in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region came into force, and every aspect of its enactment is confirming Hongkongers’ worst fears.

The new law was “kept secret from the public until 11pm local time, when the law officially went into effect.” And it wasn’t just the public that was kept in the dark: Hong Kong’s top official, Chief Executive Carrie Lam, “acknowledged in a press conference shortly after the passage that she had not seen a full draft.” This, however, did not prevent Lam (and a host of pro-Beijing toadies) from welcoming the new law, sight unseen.

This is a fitting start to Hong Kong’s new era of opaqueness, in which a new Office for Safeguarding National Security run by Beijing will handle offenses “endangering national security” (Art. 49(4)), while enjoying immunity from Hong Kong laws (Art. 60). Hongkongers accused of breaking the law could be sent to juryless Hong Kong courts (Art. 46), if they’re lucky. If they’re not, and their case is handled directly by the new national security office, they’ll be tried by prosecutors and courts designated by Beijing, in unspecified venues (Art. 56). As the Central Government’s man in Hong Kong helpfully clarified, the new office “abides by Chinese law and . . . Hong Kong’s legal system cannot be expected to implement the laws of the mainland.”

For some time now, it has been clear that the end was nigh for Hong Kong’s One Country, Two Systems arrangement. On June 30, the death certificate was issued in the form of the new law. It is simply impossible to look at the new law and claim with a straight face that Hong Kong retains any meaningful autonomy. In addition to the frightening prospects mentioned in the preceding paragraph, the new law directs the Hong Kong Government to establish a new Committee for Safeguarding National Security, which “shall be under the supervision of and accountable to the Central People’s Government” (Art. 12). This committee will have a National Security Advisor (NSA), “who shall be designated by the Central People’s Government” and who will “sit in” on Committee meetings (Art. 15).

For its part, the Hong Kong Police Force (HKPF) is required by the new law to “establish a department for safeguarding national security with law enforcement capacity” (Art. 16). The appointment of this new department’s head shall be approved by Beijing’s new national security office. Meanwhile, the Hong Kong Department of Justice must set up a “specialized prosecution division,” the line members of which must be approved by the new Committee (with its Beijing-appointed NSA) (Art. 18). The appointment of this division’s head must be approved by the national security office. Last but not least, Hong Kong’s Financial Secretary shall “appropriate from the general revenue a special fund to meet the expenditure for safeguarding national security” without regard to any relevant restrictions in Hong Kong laws (Art. 19).

In other words, Beijing will now vet police and prosecutorial appointments in Hong Kong, while telling the Hong Kong Government how to spend its money. Meanwhile, the stage is set to end Hong Kong’s long tradition of jury trials, in the cases where it matters most. To top it all off, a legal mechanism has been established to have Hong Kong offenses tried by Mainland Chinese courts, potentially at locations deep within China.

This is devastating. The nightmarish future that Hongkongers feared when Britain sold them down the river in 1984 (hmm) is here. (To be fair to the UK, it is very belatedly making some amends, by offering some Hongkongers a path to British citizenship.)

In the run-up to the enactment of the new law, there were many attempts to downplay its practical consequences, raising the possibility that the law would more than anything be held over Hong Kong’s head. Chief Executive Lam’s deputy said “only terrorists and separatists would be targeted by the law.” Even the Global Times, a Chinese Communist Party (CCP) mouthpiece, suggested the law would be used sparingly, only in cases involving collusion with foreign forces.

Well, the HKPF clearly didn’t get the memo. On the day after the law was passed, the force tweeted that “around 370 arrests, including 10 (6M&4F) for breaching #NationalSecurityLaw, have been made today.” Another tweet boasted,

A man was arrested for holding a #HKIndependence flag in #CausewayBay, Hong Kong, violating the #NationalSecurityLaw. This is the first arrest made since the law has come into force.

The photos that accompany the tweet show a simple black banner with 香港獨立 HONG KONG INDEPENDENCE emblazoned across it in white. This will get you arrested in the new dystopian Hong Kong, making a mockery of the Basic Law’s promise of freedom of expression. Adding insult to injury, the CCP’s local goons will broadcast this obscenity to the world (helpfully adding hashtags to make sure the right people get the message).

No doubt, some in Hong Kong’s international business community will continue to put on a brave face. And for companies that are in China for China, Hong Kong might still be a better bet than, say, Shenzhen. But savvy companies and businesspersons will be looking very carefully at their Hong Kong exposure. Risks of all sorts have to be evaluated in a new light. To take just one example, the choice of Hong Kong as a venue for dispute resolution will be subject to increasing concerns, as I discussed in Hong Kong’s National Security Law Has Left Lawyers Uneasy (Law360). If litigation against a Chinese party, especially a well-connected and/or state-owned one, is a possibility, how secure will your company’s assets be in a Hong Kong bank? How impartial will a Hong Kong judge gunning for an appointment to the national security bench (Art. 44) be when hearing such cases?

The new Hong Kong will be fraught with serious dangers for international businesses. While Hong Kong will not turn into a barren rock, the city’s new reality is simply inconsistent with a role as Asia’s world city. And to be fair, the city’s decline began long before the national security law and the unrest that led to it. Hong Kong has been steadily losing out to Singapore and Mainland cities for many years, due to a variety of factors.

But the demise of One Country, Two Systems is not just killing off a world-class business center. Hong Kong’s very spirit has also suffered a lethal blow. As the imposition of the new law approached, Yuen Chan poignantly tweeted:

Do you remember that feeling of lightness when crossing from the Mainland into Hong Kong – knowing you could speak freely, publish freely, didn’t need to look over your shoulder, interviewees didn’t need pseudonyms, you could conduct interviews with a microphone out in the open?

“Feeling of lightness” perfectly captures the experience of returning to Hong Kong from the Mainland (at least in the good old days), even for non-journalists. That feeling of lightness for me was seeing my phone come to life with all the WhatsApp, LINE and Gmail messages that couldn’t get through while I was in China. It was being able to access news sources without censorship and find books that were not sold across the border. It was attending June 4 vigils, engaging in critical discussions about government policies at lectures, and visiting places of worship free of government interference. It was the care with which customs officers preserved chain of custody and recorded witness statements when I examined seized counterfeits at their warehouse . . . because rule of law mattered. It was a police force that could be trusted.

All of that is now at risk. The wonderful example of a Chinese society reaching the pinnacles of development is fast eroding. As in a reverse takeover transaction, the CCP is hollowing out the soul of Hong Kong, leaving only the thinnest of shells to give cover to those who naively or self-servingly claim it’s business as usual. Yes, the barristers may continue to wear wigs, the government’s pronouncements may pay lip service to civil liberties, and the street signs (and police tweets) may be in English. But behind that ornamentation, the reality is that from Beijing to Xinjiang to Tibet to Hong Kong there is now one system of repression.

What’s more, the turn of events in Hong Kong makes it clear that the CCP has no intention of making China look more like Hong Kong, but the opposite, giving yet more reason for despair.

UPDATE: Things have only gotten worse for Hong Kong since we wrote this — much worse actually. As many of you know, the Hong Kong government has taken to copying the PRC, by arresting people who disagree with the government and by running sham elections. And just like the PRC, expats and others who are able to leave Hong Kong, are doing so in record numbers.

Réquiem por Hong Kong

El 30 de junio del presente año marca un antes y un después en la historia de Hong Kong. Ese día entró en vigor una nueva ley de seguridad nacional que da al traste con las garantías individuales de los hongkoneses y con la limitada autonomía de la que el territorio gozó durante sus primeros 23 años bajo el control de la República Popular China.
En un giro insólito, el texto del estatuto—impuesto por las autoridades centrales en Pekín—se mantuvo en secreto hasta que tomó efecto. Incluso la jefa del Gobierno local, Carrie Lam, admitió no haber visto un borrador completo previo a la aprobación de la ley. Esto no impidió que avalara a ciegas la misma.

Fue un inicio apto para la nueva era de opacidad en Hong Kong, en la que una recién creada Oficina para Salvaguardar la Seguridad Nacional, adscrita a las autoridades centrales en Pekín, se encargará de los delitos que «pongan en peligro la seguridad nacional», ambiguamente definidos por el nuevo estatuto, mientras sus funcionarios gozan de inmunidad ante las leyes locales. Los hongkoneses acusados de estos delitos podrían acabar ante un tribunal sin jurado en Hong Kong, de tener suerte. De lo contrario, se encontrarán ante fiscales y jueces designados por Pekín, en tribunales que pudieran estar en cualquier rincón de China.

La autonomía de Hong Kong, que otrora estaba garantizada por la fórmula de «un país, dos sistemas», prácticamente ha terminado. De acuerdo con la ley, los departamentos responsables de seguridad nacional dentro de la Policía y Fiscalía de Hong Kong tendrán que regirse como diga Pekín. Incluso a la Hacienda local se le ordena el desembolso de los fondos correspondientes para apoyar el nuevo aparato de seguridad.

Se ha hecho realidad la pesadilla que temían los hongkoneses cuando Margaret Thatcher los entregó a la autocrática China, ignorando su condición de súbditos británicos por más de un siglo. Tal es la indignación que el actual Gobierno de Boris Johnson ha tenido que finalmente ofrecerles los derechos de amparo que Thatcher les negó. Cuánta angustia se pudo haber evitado, si en 1984 se hubiese reconocido la inmoralidad de abandonarles a su suerte ante una cruenta dictadura, permitiéndoles retener su nacionalidad británica.

Mientras se esperaban los detalles de la nueva legislación, hubo quienes intentaron minimizar el impacto que tendría la misma. Incluso desde el Gobierno de Hong Kong y los medios de propaganda del régimen chino se indicó que la ley sería invocada solamente en un puñado de casos extremos. Sin embargo, las acciones de la Policía tras la aprobación de la ley presentan otro cuadro.

En menos de 24 horas, la Policía hacía alarde en Twitter de sus primeros arrestos por violaciones a la ley. «Un hombre fue arrestado por tener una bandera independentista». «Tres féminas fueron arrestadas por mostrar materiales con eslóganes independentistas en Causeway Bay».

Algunos integrantes de la comunidad internacional en Hong Kong creen que no es para tanto, pero la realidad es que los riesgos que presenta el hacer negocios en Hong Kong se han disparado de manera dramática. Por ejemplo, Hong Kong se ha convertido en foro preferente para la resolución de disputas entre empresas internacionales, sobre todo cuando una de las partes es china. En el nuevo Hong Kong, en caso de un pleito contra una empresa china, habrá que preguntarse si los activos en un banco local estarán seguros, ante posibles presiones de por parte de las autoridades chinas. ¿Se podrá confiar en un juez o árbitro local que tenga ambiciones de integrar uno de los nuevos tribunales para casos de seguridad nacional?

La importancia de Hong Kong como centro de negocios inevitablemente decaerá. Quizá siga siendo una base conveniente para empresas con operaciones en China, pero no podrá ser la Ciudad Mundial de Asia que mentaba el Gobierno local. El atractivo de Singapur como sede regional irá en alza, al igual que el de ciudades chinas más rentables como Shenzhen y Shanghái. Incluso urbes regionales como Bangkok, Ciudad Ho Chi Minh y Taipéi se llevarán trozos del pastel.

No solo pierde la ciudad su pujanza económica. También su espíritu agoniza. Recientemente, la periodista Yuen Chan tuiteó:

¿Recuerdan esa sensación de ligereza al cruzar desde China continental hacia Hong Kong—sabiendo que se podía hablar libremente, publicar libremente, que no era necesario mirar por encima del hombro, que los entrevistados no necesitaban seudónimos, que podías realizar entrevistas con un micrófono abiertamente?

Una sensación de ligereza es precisamente lo que sentía al regresar a Hong Kong tras una estancia en China, durante los muchos años que pasé en esa parte del mundo. Entrar a Hong Kong era escuchar los avisos de mi móvil al recibir todos los mensajes de WhatsApp y Gmail que eran bloqueados en China. Era leer la prensa y los libros que se me antojara. Visitar iglesias y templos libres de control gubernamental. Fuerzas del orden que se regían por un Estado de Derecho.

En su mejor expresión, Hong Kong fue casi un milagro, una sociedad china que alcanzó las más altas cotas de desarrollo. Ahora solo queda el cascarón, ornamentos que buscan engañar. Queda solo lo superficial del Hong Kong de antaño, que gozaba de limitada democracia, sí, pero de extensa libertad. Los abogados siguen usando pelucas, cual si fueran camino al Old Bailey de Londres, pero los tribunales están desprovistos de jurados. En algunos casos les dirán que sus clientes han sido transportados a algún punto en China que por cuestiones de seguridad no puede ser revelado. El mismo régimen de represión opera ahora a lo largo de China, desde los campos de concentración en Xinjiang, a los monasterios profanados del Tíbet, a las bibliotecas y escuelas de Hong Kong.

En 1997, cuando Hong Kong pasó a manos de China, hubo quienes tuvieron la esperanza de que el nuevo territorio ofrecería al resto de la nación un ejemplo de la prosperidad que pueden alcanzar los chinos dentro de un marco de libertad. Las recientes acciones del régimen de Pekín dejan claro que no tienen intención ninguna de aprender de Hong Kong, sino todo lo contrario. El réquiem no es tan solo por Hong Kong, si no por China entera.