The Hong Kong security law (or the Basic Law of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region) that came into effect late on 30th June 2020 spells disaster for the pro-democratic city. As one of the five autonomous regions in China, the ‘one country, two systems’ policy has shielded Hong Kong from the excesses of the Communist Party of China and its desire for total control. But the introduction of the security law is a stark reminder of the autonomy that the mainland had conceded to the city in the interest of commercial viability and its power to rescind that freedom. The conversion of a hotel into the headquarters of the national security office (to be run by Chinese authorities independently of the Hong Kong government) is a metaphorical replacement of the laissez faire policies of Hong Kong by a veritable police state.
The security law focuses on four salient points- secession (Articles 20-21), subversion (Articles 22-23), terrorism (Articles 24-30), and collusion with external groups. Dissent has been criminalized along with the freedom of expression. Judicial autonomy has also been questioned on two grounds. Firstly, the very presence of a Chinese establishment in the form of the national security office is a threat to the citizens of Hong Kong. As a parallel organization for investigation into internal security, decisions of the national security office cannot be challenged through legal recourse within the Hong Kong judicial system. Secondly, it is within the Chief Executive’s power to appoint the judges who would chair hearings on national security matters. Articles 13 and 16 of the Act also extend the Chief Executive’s powers to appoint officials in the Committee for safeguarding national security and the police force respectively. The candidature of the Chief Executive has always been incumbent upon the shortlisted persons’ affiliation with the mainland.
Articles 6, 7, 8, and 9 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which state the rights to equality before law and the right to have access to a fair trial have been put into jeopardy by the security law. This is especially concerning since China has ratified the declaration. The objectivity of the procedures of upholding national security is thus clearly in a limbo.
Amidst other dubious clauses such as those considering the vandalism of transportation to be an act of ‘terrorism’ or those banning anyone embroiled in a national security case from running for office in Hong Kong, the spotlight has fallen on the erosion of digital privacy. Under the law, Chinese officials can demand the disclosure of online activities of ‘suspects’. Non-Chinese apps and tech companies are also liable to comply with such requests. Companies like Facebook, Twitter, Google, and Zoom have not fulfilled data sharing requests so far and are waiting for their own assessment on the matter. Preliminary analysis points out that these platforms are likely to concede to the demands if they want to continue doing business in Hong Kong. When profits are held hostage, foregoing privacy appears to be an easy option.
Censorship in China, especially on the internet, is a malaise that its people have learnt to live with, and also evade. Citizens have found creative ways of bypassing constant surveillance by the State and have also used the Internet as a means of holding their administrators accountable. But the nexus between corporates running social media networking sites and the government has eclipsed any progress in the opening up of China’s cyberspace. Called the ‘Great Firewall’ of China, the unique combination of a drive to promote homegrown applications (in conjunction with Communist ideals of self-sufficiency) and a fear of snooping by international players using the Internet, has created a one-of-a-kind Internet patronage. Tech giants such as Google, Twitter, and Facebook have been forbidden from operating in the Mainland. Chinese supplements such as Weibo and Baidu are widely used instead.
Reasons for the rampant banning of certain hashtags or media range from the ludicrous to the bizarre. In 2013, the film Winnie the Pooh and its associated merchandise was banned because of the character’s likeness to Chinese President Xi Jinping and the figure’s usage in memes. During the anti-extradition law protests in Hong Kong last year, users of WeChat, a platform equivalent to WhatsApp, residing in the United States were also censored if they shared information showing their support to the movement. Even territorial boundaries cannot keep the all-seeing Chinese big brother out of people’s digital footprint.
TikTok, the short-form video sharing and creation app, has withdrawn from the Hong Kong market post the announcement of the security law. Taken at face value, the decision appears to go against corporate interest and uphold the right to online privacy. By leaving the market, TikTok essentially disables any data-sharing requirements it is obliged to meet. But TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance- a China based firm, also runs several other applications, the most popular of which is Douyin. Douyin is, simply put, the Chinese version of TikTok. According to Bloomberg, 86% of Douyin’s sales came from China early this year. Considering the expanse of the Chinese market, it is not surprising that ByteDance chose to forsake its Hong Kong market share to guarantee continued revenue from China. Such an instance of the weighing of losses and profit within a political rubric illustrates the strength of China’s ‘Great Firewall’.
A weighty report by the New York Times throws light on the ruptures in everyday life that have emerged as a result of the law. Children are being told not to sing protest-songs while restaurant-owners are removing decorations supporting the pro-democratic movement. Anyone flying flags demanding Hong Kong’s freedom is being arrested. Neighbours have turned into spies and mere suspicion can overturn people’s lives now. Hong Kong’s unique culture is a brew of the semi-permeable division between the city and China as well as its history. The security law is merely the first step in the hegemonic ambitions of China’s intent of controlling Hong Kong completely. The vibrancy of its society that is home to several ethnicities including Indian and Filipino due to a shared colonial past, the forwardness of Cantonese cinema, a strong protest-culture, and a robust Press are likely to be lost in the fray.
The Hong Kong security law is also only one contention among many in the long-running trade and sanctions war between China and the West. The New York Times predicts an intensification of the animosity currently brewing between China and the United States if American tech is continued to be rankled in Hong Kong. The city’s special status in the neo-liberal economy had shrouded it from Chinese controls for the sake of capitalist interests. Hong Kong’s special status still continues to help it escape tariffs imposed on China and trade more freely in financial securities. However, with China gaining greater economic ground, its motivation for appeasing the West using Hong Kong as a front for commercial activities has waned. The world can only wait and watch how the stalemate between Hong Kong and China unfolds.
Authored by :- Divya Godbole Divya is a sociology graduate from Lady Shri Ram College, University of Delhi. Her areas of interest include foreign relations and rights of scheduled and tribal groups.