Lately, the Hong Kong government has been throwing its full weight behind a national security law that Beijing is expected to impose on the city by fiat as early as next week, just in time for the anniversary of the city’s handover back to China. It has taken out front-page displays in local newspapers and covered giant billboards and even plastered a tram with ads extolling the virtues of the legislation.
There’s just one problem: the local government knows essentially nothing about the details of the law, which will criminalize acts including treason, separatism, and collusion with foreign forces. It is widely expected to severely curtail civil liberties in Hong Kong, and could allow mainland law enforcement to operate in the territory under the auspices of an office representing Beijing in the implementation of the law.
China’s top legislative body announced last month that it would directly exert control over Hong Kong by circumventing the city’s legislative process and unilaterally imposing the sweeping law. The move came almost a year after huge protests first erupted in the city against an extradition bill, and more broadly, China’s steady dismantling of the city’s freedoms.
Asked at a press conference today about whether she has seen a full draft of the law, chief executive Carrie Lam admitted that she knows little about the bill that her administration has been championing. ”We have not seen the complete details of the proposed legislation,” she said, explaining that her team’s rosy comments about the law are based only “on what we have seen”—that is, what’s been reported in state media. Hong Kong’s sole representative to the legislative committee in mainland China that is drafting the law said he had to return the draft reviewed at a meeting last weekend, according to the South China Morning Post.
That Beijing is drafting and moving to impose a law in Hong Kong that the city’s government has not even seen a draft of is unprecedented, noted Hong Kong lawyer and writer Antony Dapiran. “This is the behavior of a colonial power.”
Despite having scant knowledge of the law, Lam said last week that opponents of the bill are an “enemy of the people.” Civil servants have been warned not to question the law, and the education minister has demanded that schools punish students and teachers who protest the law. Over and over again, the government has exhorted Hong Kongers to back the law because it will bring “stability” and “prosperity” to the city—but it has failed to explain how exactly that is the case.
Instead of having a full draft to scrutinize, it now appears that the text of the legislation will only be made public after its passage, according to the South China Morning Post. People are instead relying on a fragmented drip of details divulged by sources close to Chinese authorities: for example, that Hong Kong may detain suspects indefinitely in special facilities, or that certain cases will be trialed in China.
The opaque lawmaking exercise is a stark reminder of a fundamental reality about the Hong Kong government: it is not highly autonomous, but a vassal state restricted to implementing the orders of Beijing. Hong Kong may ostensibly have its own mini-constitution in the form of the Basic Law, giving it wide scope for self-rule, but that is ultimately a sham because the Basic Law is whatever Beijing decides it is. In the same way, when rumors swirled last year of China’s imminent deployment of soldiers to Hong Kong to quell the protests, many in the city realized that wouldn’t be necessary—because the local police force was already serving as the military arm of Beijing.
Perhaps it makes little difference whether Carrie Lam knows the details of the law. One Hong Kong lawyer put it this way: “Don’t analyze the Hong Kong national security law. There’s nothing to analyze. It’s just whatever [Beijing says] it is.”