Hong Kong in 2020

Due to the developing events in Hong Kong, BAISmag reached out to interview 
Gina van Ling, to gain a better understanding of the developing situation. 

1. The Hong Kong protests originally started in 2019 due to the proposition of an extradition bill. Now, in 2020, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has passed a new national security law. What is this law and why is it an issue?

The Law on Safeguarding National Security in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region allows the mainland authorities to exercise jurisdiction over certain aspects of Hong Kong’s security when local law enforcement proves to be “ineffective”. The law covers crimes of “subversion”, “secession”, “terrorism”, and “collusion with foreign forces” and punishment can include life imprisonment. In addition, suspects can be extradited under certain circumstances and tried in the mainland. The police force will have a special department that conducts secret operations and will gain extended and far-reaching powers to search and detain suspects.

Aside from the infringement on Hong Kong’s autonomy, the law’s applicability is ambiguous. The crimes are not clearly defined: anything can constitute “endangering national security”, from retweeting a critical post to going on the streets to protest. Moreover, the law seems to apply not only to Hong Kong residents, but to anyone who violates the law. The law has only just gone into effect, so we do not know how it will be applied in practice, but in theory, anyone setting foot in Hong Kong could be arrested. The law seems to be a catch-all for any activities that are critical of Hong Kong and the mainland governments’ actions.   

One of the other aspects of the new law that piqued my interest is the so-called “national security education”. Supporting or at least not condemning something like the current protests can have consequences for educators’ jobs. By including national security in the education curriculum, people are continuously reminded of how they ought to behave. Also, note how the term “national security” is used: it implies that Hong Kong and the mainland are the same entity. In that way, people are primed to think of Hong Kong and its status differently. 

2. What demands do protesters have?

In this specific case, the main goal of the protesters was the withdrawal of the bill. However, you can actually connect the current protests to the Umbrella Movement that started in 2014. The specific concerns have shifted and evolved with new developments but the main issue – Hong Kong’s separate status and the struggle for universal suffrage – has not gone away. Now that the bill has gone into effect, the protests are emphasising the desire for autonomy and/or independence of Hong Kong. There is a lot of anger and protesters seem determined to not back down for now, despite the possible consequences. In that sense, the protests have become a lot more grim. 

It is also important to note that the national security law has gone into effect one day before Establishment Day, a national holiday that celebrates the 1997 handover. Traditionally, many protesters take to the streets on this day to advocate for democratic principles and civil liberties. It is no coincidence that this law came into effect around this date. 

3. Recently, the United States revoked Hong Kong’s status as an autonomous region. What does this mean for the region? 

The status has not been revoked officially yet, but even the threat itself affects diplomatic relations between the US and the PRC. On a political level, this is about US-China relations and the rivalry between these two states in a broader sense. On the economic side of things, I think revoking the special status of Hong Kong will affect the US more severely than it will affect the PRC. Hong Kong will be hit severely if trade and business becomes more costly, but for the PRC as a whole, Hong Kong has become less economically important over the years. The rules will affect US-HK trade with the former drawing the short straw as goods and services will become more expensive. Hong Kong accounts for only a few percent of China’s GDP; the mainland is more important. On the other hand, for the financial sector Hong Kong is still significant. Even though neighbouring Shenzhen and Shanghai have become flourishing financial hubs, the control of money flows by the mainland government makes it less attractive for foreign investment. 

4. How has COVID-19 impacted the chances of the pro-Beijing faction pushing through with legislation?

The pandemic forced protesters mostly indoors, so that has certainly helped the authorities to contain the protests for a while. Also, on a higher political level the pandemic has been useful, as it managed to shift the international attention away from Hong Kong. The pandemic created momentum to introduce this new legislation. It was a fairly covert move and the bill was passed and brought into effect at an astonishing speed, so the window for public outrage has been very small. 

5. In your opinion, what political developments to the situation may we see in the future? And how will Hong Kong civil society proceed and change from here on out? 

I’m always wary of predicting the future, you almost always get it wrong…

The international reaction has been one of concern. The UK has stated that the new law is a violation of the Joint Declaration; several countries such as Canada have warned their citizens not to travel to Hong Kong because their rights and safety are seriously at risk. The question is whether anything more substantial will happen. The cynic in me thinks that there will be little more than some public statements of outrage, perhaps a sanction or two, but nothing radical. China is viewed as too important and international relations are too intertwined. Money tends to throw morality out of the window.

As for Hong Kong itself, the protesters are facing a difficult time ahead. The question is whether the majority will continue to fight for this cause or whether people will become resolved to the situation. The new legislation makes every protester a potential target and the consequences are potentially incredibly severe. 

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Image Source: https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/07/02/why-taiwans-assistance-to-hong-kong-matters/ [Demonstrators take part in a protest against the new national security law on July 1, 2020 in Hong Kong, China. ANTHONY KWAN/GETTY IMAGES]

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Gina van Ling is a tutor at Leiden University, who is involved in courses such as politics, history, and culture of East Asia. She has conducted research specifically in terms of Chinese history and identity through narratives present in national museums and therefore is a specialist when it comes to Chinese history and politics. 

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*DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of BAISmag or BASIS.*

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