While many countries are struggling to form a strategy to revive their weak economies by systematically easing restrictions imposed due to Covid-19, Hong Kong has been successful in containing the virus without enforcing a strict lockdown which could have devastated its economy. Its experience with previous infectious disease outbreaks such as the SARS epidemic in 2003 had allowed it to develop a system that could mitigate the damage caused by acute respiratory diseases. As a result, it was quick to follow WHO guidelines and implemented track, test, and quarantine regime to contain the pandemic. Its efforts to curb the pandemic will, however, dissipate due to demonstrations against the draconian security law introduced by China. Although China’s endeavor to weaponize legislation to gain control over the semi-autonomous region has failed time and time again, it persists intending to bring the region under its iron fist before the “one country, two systems” agreement expires in 2047.
By introducing different laws within Hong Kong to gain control over its political system, China is trumping on the spirit, if not the letter, of the agreement signed with the British in 1997. The citizens of Hong Kong resisted these efforts by mobilizing and protesting until some of their demands were accepted. The demonstrations, however, continue. Hong Kong has been upended by protests which erupted last year due to the introduction of the (withdrawn) extradition bill. The bill would have allowed authorities to extradite fugitives to mainland China to face trial there. The citizens, however, suspicious of China’s intentions, believed the law would be misused and would deprive them of the freedoms bestowed by their mini-constitution. Once the bill was withdrawn, the protestors continued to demand an investigation into police brutality against them and called for electoral reforms.
The protests which crippled the Asian financial hub stalled during the outbreak of the Covid-19.
Hong Kong now braces itself for another round of more violent protests after National People’s Congress unveiled a national security law that would tackle secession, subversion, terrorism, and foreign interference in the former British colony. Critics believe that the national security law will not only erode the civil liberties granted to them under the “one country, two systems” framework but will erase the entire framework itself.
The Basic Law of Hong Kong grants the citizens freedoms of speech, press, association, and assembly. Once the law is implemented, it will lead to the suppression of dissent on a massive scale as any form of expression which China feels threatened by could be deemed a national security threat, thus illegal under the new legislation. The law will allow China to eliminate those calling for Independence and the ones criticizing its authority. Pro-democracy activists who have been calling on foreign governments to help their cause will also face charges. To add insult to injury, once the pending bill has passed, mainland security agents will be able to function openly allowing China to crack down harder on dissenters.
According to Article 23 of the Basic Law, the government must draft a national security bill. The previous attempt in 2003 to draft and implement a national security law failed to progress due to massive protests. The government’s failure to impose the law by tackling the protesters has led China to take the matter into its own hands. Beijing will bypass Hong Kong’s legislature to implement the proposed bill. Therefore, the bill is seen as another attempt by China to dominate the semi-autonomous region while the world is distracted by the coronavirus pandemic.
The protestors were further infuriated by the National Anthem bill which criminalizes mocking China’s national anthem, “March of the Volunteers.” Those who do not abide by the new law will likely be imprisoned up to three years or face fines up to HK$50,000. Schools will be compelled to teach history and etiquette of the anthem in order to avoid criticism in the future. China is leaving no stone unturned in its attempt to gain tighter control over Hong Kong.
While Covid-19 was making global headlines, China took the opportunity to increase its authority over the semi-autonomous region. It appointed Luo Huining who sees the pro-democracy movement as a threat to the semi-autonomous region as its top official in Hong Kong. In April, while governments were releasing prisoners to avoid the spread of Covid-19, authorities in Hong Kong arrested about 15 prominent pro-democracy activists who had participated in the protests in 2019. China’s actions show that it is unwilling to give in to the demands of Hong Kong’s citizens.
China’s attempts to tighten its grip on the region will only fan the flames of hatred and will be met by fierce resistance, further alienating Hong Kong’s citizens. Its efforts to forcefully annex the semi-autonomous region have amplified the calls for independence and damaged Hong Kong’s special trading relationship with the US. Consequentially, this will ravage Hong Kong’s economy as it will face similar tariffs imposed on mainland China. If China does not change its attitude towards Hong Kong, its reputation which has been damaged at home and abroad due to the Covid-19 cover-up will only deteriorate.
It is interesting to note that China, alongside other countries, has used the pandemic as a ploy to revamp mass surveillance at a time when the entire world is occupied with containing the virus. The surveillance tools created to control the pandemic require people to give up their privacy, allowing the state to track its citizens. States such as Hungary, Israel, and India have followed suit and are employing similar techniques to increase their political hold and tighten their grip over people. Hungary’s Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, has called for an indefinite state of emergency in order to increase his power. He can now imprison any journalist propagating news which he considers false. Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has been given approval by the Knesset to use the secret national database compiled by Shin Bet to control the pandemic.
The database which was formed to counter-terrorism consists of private data of every Israeli citizen which is now accessible to Israeli.
India has also attempted to increase its control through the government-built app known as Aarogya Setu which facilitates the process of tracing coronavirus patients. Critics are concerned that the app will detrimental to privacy and freedom of speech- lack of transparency regarding how the app will be used only makes matters worse. Furthermore, since the coronavirus has led suspended courts, authorities are arresting dissenters under the terrorism law.
The various surveillance, identity verification systems being developed around the world will likely stay intact once the pandemic is over and be utilized to curtail dissent and freedom of expression, leading to an eventual large-scale violation of human rights.
Boris Johnson has laid out a visa offer to nearly 3 million Hong Kong citizens and has said that all persons eligible for BNO passport can apply if China cuts freedoms. Johnson said “Britain would have no choice but to uphold our profound ties of history and friendship with the people of Hong Kong … Today about 350,000 people hold British Nationals (Overseas) passports and another 2.5 million people would be eligible to apply for them. At present these passports allow for visa free access for up to six months. If China imposes its national security law, the British government will change its immigration rules and allow any holder of these passports from Hong Kong to come to the UK for a renewable period of 12 months and be given further immigration rights including the right to work which would place them on the route to citizenship.”
The author Bilal Mustikhan is a fourth-year student studying Social Development and Policy at Habib University. He has interned as a sub-editor at the Dawn News business desk and is currently preparing for the civil services exam. He has a keen interest in international relations and world history. He can be reached @BMustikhan