IF CHINA’S RULERS hoped the new national-security law they have imposed on Hong Kong late on June 30th would immediately cow its critics there into silence, they have been proved wrong. Protests to mark July 1st, the anniversary of the handover of the territory from British to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, defied both the law and a ban this year on what has become an annual event. So the first arrests under the law came almost at once. By the evening hundreds of people had been detained. Police carried banners warning the law would be enforced. They also deployed water-cannon, tear-gas and pepper-spray.
The law is supposedly intended to halt secession (the first arrest was for holding a banner calling for Hong Kong’s independence), subversion, terrorism and “collusion with a foreign country or with external elements to endanger national security”. Although the law was expected, its terms, made public only as it came into effect, are harsher even than most analysts expected, with its scope sweeping, overriding local legislation and penalties up to life imprisonment. After passage by the rubber-stamp parliament in Beijing on June 30th, and promulgation by an order from China’s president, Xi Jinping, its text was made public only late that night, when Hong Kong’s government gazetted the legislation.
China had announced its intention to pass such a law without reference to Hong Kong’s own Legislative Council (LegCo) in May. Billboards hailing the legislation were plastered across Hong Kong even before senior officials in the city had seen it. Officials have stressed that the bill would comply with “important principles of the rule of law” and international human-rights legislation. But it will take precedence should a conflict arise between the new law and existing ones. The legislature in Beijing will be able to overrule any verdict in Hong Kong’s courts. There may be little need for that: Hong Kong’s pliant government will decide which judges can handle national-security cases.
Hong Kong’s police will investigate such crimes. But, in a “tiny” number of important cases, central-government agencies will be allowed to step in. Hong Kong’s chief executive will head a new national-security commission, with one seat reserved for a central-government “adviser”. A new body will be set up in Hong Kong for mainland spooks to “collect and analyse national-security intelligence”. That is likely to mean they will name targets, even if arrests will be made by a new branch of the local police that will focus on national security.
Even before the law was enacted it had affected Hong Kong’s internal politics and international relations. On June 30th, Joshua Wong, a leading activist, and his young colleagues from Demosisto, a small pro-democracy party, announced it was disbanding. Mr Wong promised on Facebook to keep up his advocacy work as an individual: “I will continue to defend my home—Hong Kong—until they silence, obliterate me from this piece of land.” His apocalyptic tone captured the fears of other anti-China protesters. Three small groups that have campaigned for Hong Kong’s independence also dissolved themselves.
Internationally, the law has drawn condemnation from many Western countries, who regard it as a breach of China’s promise to honour Hong Kong’s autonomy under “one country, two systems”, the guarantee in China’s agreement with Britain, of a transitional 50 years after 1997 during which Hong Kong’s way of life and political freedoms would be conserved. On July 1st, Boris Johnson, Britain’s prime minister, told Parliament that the imposition of the law constitutes “a clear and serious breach” of that agreement. He also reaffirmed the pledge Britain made in response to China’s announcement of the law to allow holders of British National Overseas (BNO) passports in Hong Kong to settle in Britain and to offer them a path to full citizenship. Almost 3m Hong Kong residents are eligible for BNO passports.
The American government has warned that in response to the law it will remove Hong Kong’s special trading status and treat it as indistinguishable from the rest of China. Already, it has suspended the preferential treatment Hong Kong received in terms of exempting American companies from having to seek export licences that apply to sales to mainland China. “Given Beijing now treats Hong Kong as ‘one country, one system’, so must we,” declared Mike Pompeo, America’s secretary of state.
A senior adviser in Hong Kong to the central government, Lau Siu-kai, says the aim of the law is to “kill a few chickens to frighten the monkeys”—to deter people with a few high-profile sentencings rather than carry out sweeping arrests. That is just how the party likes to crush dissent on the mainland. That echoes the official line that Hong Kong has just a small number of “troublemakers”. The evidence suggests that, in fact, large numbers remain ready to risk the new law’s harsh consequences by continuing to defy the Communist Party’s attempts to bring the territory to heel.