In Hong Kong, the impact of the national security law (NSL) and the related clampdown on freedoms is widening by the day. But the fallout from the legislation is being felt far beyond Hong Kong. For one thing, it has focused world attention on China’s violations of human rights, exacerbating tensions between Beijing and a nascent coalition of Western countries. 

Up to now, officials in Hong Kong have demonstrated an astounding ability to find “national security” violations in contexts that in the past went unnoticed, and that still remain unnoticed in free societies.

Members from the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions holding up paper masks of sheep at the West Kowloon Law Courts Building on July 23, 2021. Photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

Almost every day there is another official threat to use the NSL or anachronistic colonial-era laws against newfound enemies in society, and seemingly every week — sometimes several times each week — there are new arrests. A recent example was the arrest of speech therapists for producing a book of children’s cartoons deemed to be so threating to national security that the supposed culprits were denied bail. 

In ordinary circumstances, none of this would be of much professional interest to scholars (including me) who study and write about the human dimensions of climate change. Yet, given the ever-expanding maw of the NSL and associated hysteria, and the way the law is spreading its tentacles into more aspects of life, can even the issue of climate change be immune? 

At first glance, it would seem to be extremely far-fetched, even irrational, to ask such a question. But in today’s Hong Kong, rationality has been turned on its head. As it transpires, the connections between climate change and the NSL are potentially quite far-reaching. The NSL might bring doom to more than Hong Kong’s democrats and free media; it might also help to bring doom to planet Earth. 

If this appears to be a wild assertion, consider the role of climate change in Sino-US relations. These have been deteriorating for quite some time, and we may already be in the early years of a new Cold War. Nevertheless, it has been widely assumed by pundits and some top-level officials that the two countries could cooperate on climate change even as they compete on almost everything else. That assumption now seems to have discounted the effect on bilateral relations of the obsession with national security in Hong Kong. 

As the crackdown on dissent in Hong Kong has been implemented over the last year, condemnations from the United States and other countries have increased. The US government has sanctioned officials deemed responsible for what is happening in Hong Kong and warned businesses of potential liabilities if their operations here are involved in the NSL crackdown. 

National security law
A banner inside the Hong Kong government headquarters promoting the national security law. Photo: GovHK.

China and the Hong Kong government have responded with indignation. More to the point, China recently declared that its cooperation with the United States on climate change would depend on “the overall strength” of the wider relationship. China seems to be saying that American complaints about the NSL crackdown will undermine, and possibly prevent, bilateral cooperation on climate change. 

Every year, China produces more of the greenhouse gas pollution causing climate change than the United States and its democratic allies combined. Without cuts to China’s emissions, there is no hope of averting catastrophic climate change. This year’s deadly floods in China — along with massive wildfires in North America and Russia, and recent fatal flooding in Germany, etc. — will become routine if that happens. 

The long-term effect could be suffering and death for millions of people. It is worth asking whether top-level officials in Hong Kong considered such suffering and death when they confidently declared that the NSL would affect only a very small number of people. 

The climate-related effects of the NSL crackdown are also being experienced locally. The Hong Kong administration’s preoccupation with imagined national security threats is blinding it to the real threats to China and its people posed by climate change. It is being distracted from doing anything about the extremely high per capita greenhouse gas pollution from Hong Kong that is worsening those threats. 

greenhouse gases climate change
Photo: Mohri UN-CECAR via Flickr

To be sure, for decades Hong Kong’s environmental policies have been piecemeal and out of touch with the scale of the threat from climate change, whether to Hong Kong, China or the wider world. This lacklustre approach is now being made worse by the political pressure on all government departments to orient their operations towards protecting “national security” and away from the Hong Kong people. 

For example, instead of redeveloping the educational system so that students of all ages, from kindergarten to university, and in every type of class, learn about climate change — what it is, why it is so vitally important, how to live a good life without costing the Earth — the Education Bureau is pushing for pupils of all ages and in every type of class to become hypersensitive to “national security.” 

Across the administration, the brainpower of local officials of all kinds is being distracted from the biggest long-term threat to the Chinese people: climate change. If a fraction of the administration’s efforts against imagined security threats were directed at climate change, Hong Kong could very quickly become an environmentally sustainable city that was part of the solution rather than part of the problem. 

The administration should ask itself some simple questions: How many people in China have died from any national security threat, however wildly conceived, originating in Hong Kong? How many people in China have died from the recurring floods, storms and other events that have been aggravated by climate change, and to which Hong Kong has disproportionately contributed? 

Typhoon Kompasu flooding Heng Fa Chuen
Strong waves near Heng Fa Chuen when Typhoon Kompasu hits Hong Kong on October 13, 2021. Photo: Stand News.

On a brighter note, the implications of the NSL for those concerned about climate change might not be entirely negative. The crackdown on former freedoms has eroded already low public support for the government. The establishment knows this, so it is looking for ways to bolster approval ratings. One of its approaches has been to eliminate critical voices in the media. 

But the administration may also try to garner public support by implementing calls for it to focus on livelihood issues, not least those related to housing. If it heeds those calls, it may be inclined to improve the living conditions of Hong Kong people most vulnerable to climate change. For example, it might provide new homes to residents of the subdivided flats and “cage homes” that are extremely vulnerable to the oppressive summer temperatures being made worse by global warming.

It might also increase financial assistance to the poor to help them cope with the inevitable rising costs of food as climate change makes agricultural disasters more common. 

Looking ahead, if China’s commitment to address climate change is genuine, Hong Kong may eventually be asked to play its part in helping it meet President Xi Jinping’s pledge to become carbon-neutral by 2060. If so, the local administration’s eagerness to implement Beijing’s priorities might lead to action that reduces Hong Kong’s environmental footprint. Too bad Beijing hasn’t imposed a law requiring that already. 

HKFP is an impartial platform & does not necessarily share the views of opinion writers or advertisers. HKFP presents a diversity of views & regularly invites figures across the political spectrum to write for us. Press freedom is guaranteed under the Basic Law, security law, Bill of Rights and Chinese constitution. Opinion pieces aim to point out errors or defects in the government, law or policies, or aim to suggest ideas or alterations via legal means without an intention of hatred, discontent or hostility against the authorities or other communities.

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Paul G. Harris

Paul G. Harris is the Chair Professor of Global and Environmental Studies at the Education University of Hong Kong. He is the author/editor of two dozen books on global environmental politics, policy and ethics. Learn more about Paul's work on his website.