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  • Abhinav Seetharaman

Recreating a New Hong Kong

On June 30, China officially placed into effect a controversial new national security law for Hong Kong. The law has been met with widespread opposition from citizens, with numerous protests having been organized since the latter half of 2019. Without a doubt, this move represents the most historic intervention in the “one country, two systems” policy since the 1997 handover of Hong Kong by the British to China.


But China’s attempts at introducing new security measures for Hong Kong are not new. In fact, for nearly two decades, Beijing had been frustrated by widespread opposition to national security laws it tried to implement since making an initial push in 2003. However, with Carrie Lam -- seen by many as “Beijing’s puppet” -- serving as Hong Kong’s Chief Executive, China’s coveted goal has materialized at last.

This is what the new Hong Kong may look like: a city stripped of its democratic institutions and self-governance, and a city whose residents now live in fear and uncertainty.

China has already begun setting up special offices to directly oversee the implementation of Hong Kong’s national security efforts. For example, the Office for Safeguarding National Security, a new institution formed under the law, now operates in a building converted from a hotel and is staffed by mainland Chinese officials. Despite pledges from agents that the office will not infringe on residents’ rights and has been established for the well-being of the people, there are significant concerns over the expansive powers which some say have been granted to the agency.


Censorship has also been spreading. Public libraries have begun to remove books advocating for independence or greater autonomy. Journalists have been informed that complete freedom of the press will be guaranteed only if they abide by the new law. Pro-democracy notes on restaurants and buildings across the city have been removed and replaced with blank ones. Ways of life in the city have seemingly transformed overnight, as residents become increasingly wary of their own actions.


A new Hong Kong promises to see a police force with nearly unprecedented levels of power. Police now have the ability to conduct searches without warrants in some situations, and also freeze assets of people supposedly suspected of being threats to national security. There are reports of people redacting past Facebook posts and erasing messaging app histories. As such, many young political groups have disbanded, and social activists and pro-democracy advocates have been among those arrested since the law took effect. Others have fled Hong Kong entirely, with a notable example being Nathan Law, one of the most prominent young pro-democracy activists who recently left the territory for London, thus becoming Hong Kong’s first dissident-in-exile under the new law.


A growing number of residents may also start to leave the city in the future, and world leaders have reached out with offers of assistance. Earlier this month, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson openly promised to provide up to three million Hong Kong residents with a chance to settle in the UK and apply for citizenship.


Schooling systems have started to undergo significant overhauls. Hong Kong has long maintained a separate education system, one which has consistently ranked among the world’s best. Since the passage of the new law, however, a number of mainland and pro-Beijing officials have expressed disappointment towards the system as being insufficiently patriotic. Authorities have ordered schools to remove books that supposedly “endanger” national security. Schools have also been instructed by China’s State Council Office to promote more values of patriotism, rule of law, and harmony, and cut off the “black hand” currently being extended to the education system and youth.


As expected, the new law has been met with much criticism from the international community, and most notably from the United States. Shortly after China rolled out its plan, the U.S. announced a countermeasure of its own, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declaring that Hong Kong shall no longer be autonomous from China. This statement stripped the financial hub of its special status under U.S. law. And earlier this month, U.S. President Donald Trump vowed that Hong Kong would be treated “the same as mainland China,” in addition to signing the Hong Kong Autonomy Act to impose sanctions on authorities who curtailed rights.


Lastly, Hong Kong may also be at risk of losing its financial potency. Despite Beijing-backed support for Hong Kong’s role as a gateway for international investors into China, recent data has not been so encouraging. According to the Global Financial Centres Index (GFCI), Hong Kong ranked as the world’s sixth-largest financial center in 2020, a drop in three positions from its third-place rank in 2015. The law could accelerate the city’s decline as one of the world’s largest financial centers, as companies become unnerved and expatriates mull over the possibility of leaving.


One key trend to watch -- amidst Hong Kong’s potential financial volatility -- is the continued rise of Singapore as a global financial hub. Long seen as one of the easiest countries to do business, Singapore has overtaken Hong Kong in this year’s GFCI, with its fifth-place rank. Foreign currency deposits at both domestic and international banks operating in Singapore have nearly doubled to $15 billion in the last year. It is important to note, though, that how Singapore pulls itself out of its current coronavirus-induced recession will affect its ability to snatch business from Hong Kong.

Ultimately, these draconian measures symbolize the start of the end for the “One Country, Two Systems” policy that has largely characterized the relationship between Hong Kong and China for over two decades. How Hong Kongers continue to respond to the law and is to be seen. Yet one thing is clear for now: China has Hong Kong firmly in its grasp, and is unlikely to release it anytime soon.

(Abhinav Seetharaman is a recent graduate of Columbia University, from where he obtained his bachelor’s and master’s degrees. He is currently based in Singapore).

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