Our new national security law marks a significant turning point for Hong Kong’s relationship with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the world.

The law, drafted in secret in Beijing and not shared with the people of Hong Kong until the hour after its implementation, provides sweeping powers to a new central national security office to be set up in the city.

Photo: Rachel Wong/HKFP.

The law empowers our police, making them more accountable to our Beijing-compliant civil service-led chief executive. The law erodes the independence of the judiciary. The chief executive selects judges who may hear most national security cases.

These are the cases over which the central national security office in Hong Kong chooses not to exercise jurisdiction. The law erodes our “separation of powers” system and strengthens “executive-led” government.

The law thus brings the local state into tighter alignment with the party’s claimed original intent of executive-led government for post-1997 Hong Kong. There are other provisions as well. 

What can we take away from the new law and how the central government has brought it to Hong Kong? First, the process of drafting and imposing the law reveals the extent to which the CCP distrusts the people of Hong Kong and our government to “do the right thing” when it comes to national security. The sources of this distrust are not hard to find.

For 23 years, Hong Kong has failed to implement its own law, as required by the Basic Law. The CCP under Hu Jintao tolerated this failure. Incumbent party leader Xi Jinping, however, will have none of it.

Photo: Tam Ming Keung/United Social Press.

Xi’s vision for China’s place in the world puts the CCP’s security at its core. Global challenges to China, led by the West, imperil party security. So too do the threats of domestic terrorism, subversion, secession, or collusion with foreigners, whether it be from Xinjiang or Hong Kong. 

To ensure Hong Kong “does the right thing”, our party secretary, Luo Huining, personally leads a new local national security committee. His position is as an advisor. The notion of “advisor” – copied from colonial practices – is a euphemism, nothing less.

Moreover, the law requires the chief executive to seek the central national security office’s “opinions in writing” before appointing leaders of new national security departments within the police and department of justice.

In addition, the police may hire “experts’” and “technicians” from beyond Hong Kong, language copied from the Basic Law and negotiated with the UK. This is legalese that masks nothing.  Both moves put the CCP squarely at the core of Hong Kong’s national security practice. How better to guarantee the party’s security than to lead it yourself? 

Luo Huining.

Second, in the law, the party addresses perceived weaknesses in Hong Kong government institutions for managing national security. The law bans judicial reviews for national security decisions, demands secrecy for national security organisations and requires that funding for national security operations not be accountable locally.

The law labels subversion as “seriously interfering in, disrupting or undermining” the government’s business, punishable by up to life in prison. Filibustering in the Legislative Council is, thus, apparently ruled out. 

Third, the law defines prohibited activities broadly. Sabotaging transport or transportation facilities is defined as terrorism, again punishable by up to life in prison. This provision takes care of protest action that delayed MTR trains by holding open train doors. Protesters used this tactic in aid of their call for a general strike.

Terrorism includes “intimidating the public to pursue a political agenda”. Do authorities mean that holding open MTR train doors is terrorism? Is forming a human chain around a government office to prevent entry subversion?

These crimes are too broadly drawn. Yet under One Country, Two Systems our national security law identifies crimes more precisely than they are on the mainland. 

Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

Fourth, the law targets schools, universities, “social organisations” (for example, churches), the media and the internet. Hong Kong authorities must “strengthen public communication, guidance, supervision and regulation” of these institutions. The government’s increased scrutiny of RTHK should be seen in this light.

The law bunches these institutions together for a reason. The party knows that simply providing additional classes on national education in schools and universities will not change people’s minds and behaviour in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong’s Achilles’ heel, from the party’s perspective, is precisely that the local state exercises lax control of the media and the internet. Hong Kong remains, for now, beyond the Great Firewall. This could change, however.

The law explicitly mandates the government to strengthen supervision and regulation (and “management” in the case of foreign media and foreign-sourced internet). The party’s experience is that only by controlling people’s sources of information can it hope to control what people think and the way they behave. This experience, honed on mainland China, is infused into the national security law. 

Officer carrying a purple flag that warns against violation of the national security law by displaying flags, banners and chanting slogans. Photo: Inmediahk, via CC 2.0.

The new central national security office and the China Liaison Office will both play key roles in implementing the new law. We can speculate about the organisation of the central national security office.

Authorities have announced the office’s leadership, identifying its three core functions: propaganda, domestic intelligence (public security) and foreign intelligence (state security). In the party’s lexicon, propaganda includes education and culture, and the media (traditional and social, domestic and foreign, including on the internet).

Accordingly, I speculate that specialist personnel within the office will focus on each of these activities in Hong Kong. The party’s experience focuses on control. We should expect more of this in Hong Kong. 

I speculate that the Liaison Office will continue to focus on the united front aspects of education and culture, the media and the internet. The party has already recruited the provosts of two of Hong Kong’s universities to help guide the universities to “do the right thing”.

Authorities appointed the provosts as advisers to the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macau Studies, which I expect to play a more active role in guiding university-level national education. The Liaison Office is also likely to take a more direct role in civil service training and party building.

Photo: Benjamin Yuen/United Social Press.

These changes narrow the political space in Hong Kong. The law gives authorities additional tools to disqualify candidates in elections. Authorities have promised to punish those who break the law (“Don’t test the law,” the secretary for justice warned.)

Many of those who cannot accept the new regime will leave. This is already happening.

The law also makes the Hong Kong government even less accountable locally than it has already become under Chief Executive Carrie Lam. Tighter control may impact the business environment. But foreign investors still flock to the mainland, where there are even more restrictions.

Hong Kong’s future media and internet controls are unlikely to be tighter than those on the mainland.

The government has indicated that its strategy is to deter undesirable behaviour. A National People’s Congress delegate, however, referred to the approach as intimidation. He may be right. If it is intimidation, how can intimidating the public for a political agenda be both terrorism and necessary for national security?

John Burns

John Burns is an honorary professor at the Department of Politics and Public Administration at the University of Hong Kong. He was dean of HKU's Faculty of Social Sciences from 2011 to 2017, and is the author of titles such as Government Capacity and the Hong Kong Civil Service. He teaches courses and does research on comparative politics and public administration, specialising in China and Hong Kong.