On the eve of the anniversary of the Hong Kong handover, China’s rubber-stamp legislature finally revealed the national-security bill that it had been conceiving since late May. The executive deputy director of Beijing’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office sardonically referred to it as a “birthday gift” for the besieged territory. It is, in reality, a revocation of freedoms more severe than even the most pessimistic analysts had predicted.
The Communist Party had already run out of patience over a month ago, when it began forcibly removing pro-democracy lawmakers during votes before announcing a plan to impose China’s national-security laws on Hong Kong — a violation of the one country, two systems model that China had guaranteed for the city during the handover.
The bill outlines a series of basic crimes tailored to be applicable to the recent protests, including terrorism, subversion, secession, and collusion (or treason). These charges will cover everything from graffiti to calling for Hong Kong’s independence or waving the American flag, and all four categories carry sentences of up to life in prison.
For particularly “serious” cases, the bill also permits the government to send Hong Kongers to the mainland for trial, where more punishments up to and including execution may apply. It is difficult to read this clause as being anything but an intentional provocation of protesters: the unrest had begun in the first place in 2019 because of a planned extradition bill. Early on, city leaders had withdrawn the legislation in the hopes that it would appease protesters. With the protests failing to abate, Beijing has brought extradition back with a vengeance.
In addition to the new laws, under which arrests are already being made, the bill calls for additional regulation of Hong Kong’s information infrastructure: universities, news media, social media, and the internet more broadly. Hong Kong remains the only place within China with anything approaching Western standards of free speech and access to the open internet. The CCP understands that these institutions are the main incubators of the city’s political opposition to Beijing. As with modern Western authoritarianism, the playbook is the same: take over the discourse and then raise a pliable generation of citizens.
Sensing that the end is near for the city’s autonomy, Hong Kong’s residents have begun departing in large numbers for greener pastures. Among these emigrants are some of the pro-democracy camp’s most high-profile advocates and leaders, including Nathan Law, who gave online testimony to Congress before fleeing. Some leaders, such as the 23-year-old Joshua Wong, disbanded their organizations out of fear that they or their followers might face imminent arrest.
A note on asylum offers
Multiple Western governments have reacted to the imminent loss of Hong Kong’s independence by extending offers of asylum and even citizenship to large portions of Hong Kong’s population. A bipartisan group of senators recently introduced the Hong Kong Safe Harbor Act, which would allow many protesters to come to the U.S. as refugees without counting toward the Trump administration’s refugee cap. Australia, likewise, has signaled that it is willing to act as a haven for Hong Kongers.
The country that has gone the furthest to extend an offer of assistance is the UK, which had sovereignty over the territory up until 1997 and whose government clearly still feels some degree of obligation to protect the rights of Hong Kongers. Boris Johnson’s plan would allow up to three million of the city’s residents — almost half of Hong Kong’s population — to settle in the UK for five years, after which they would be able to apply for citizenship.
While the support of these governments for the plight of Hong Kongers deserves to be applauded, such asylum offers are sure to be divisive among conservatives at a sensitive time. Donald Trump and Boris Johnson were both brought into power largely due to concern about immigration. Few people in the world deserve asylum as much as Hong Kong’s activists, but suddenly extending citizenship offers to three million foreigners would be irresponsible, not to mention politically dangerous.
A sensible middle ground would be Taiwan. The island has been unwavering in its support for Hong Kong and is now crafting a comprehensive plan to provide housing, residency, and work for refugees from the city. Beyond the small language barrier (southern Chinese mainly speak Cantonese, whereas Taiwanese speak Mandarin), there should be little problem integrating Hong Kongers with a shared interest in resisting Beijing’s aggression. From there, the spirit of freedom in Hong Kong can be kept alive.
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