The new National Security Law which was imposed by the Chinese government on the people of Hong Kong late at night on 30 June could mark the end of the ‘one country, two systems’ approach which China and the UK agreed as part of Hong Kong becoming a Special Administrative Region of China.
It could also signal the end of the movement for democracy which over the past 23 years has seen upwards of two million Hong Kong people at a time demonstrate in the streets.
The trade union movement in Hong Kong, which has played a key role in demanding human rights and democracy, has come under enormous pressure in the past year, with its leader on trial later this month for his part in organising and calling for protests over the extradition law and for universal suffrage, and for the annual commemoration of the 4 June 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.
Many trade unionists have also been sacked, including by multinational companies based outside China, for their part in the campaign over the extradition law, and are now fearful that the National Security Law could lead to their imprisonment in mainland China.
That could mean the end of freedom of association in Hong Kong, and is therefore contrary to UN human rights laws, including the core conventions of the International Labour Organisation. Freedom of association – the right to join a trade union independent of both government and employers – does not exist in China where the All-China Federation of Trade Unions is an arm of the state and the Communist Party. But it is part of the Basic Law which has overseen Hong Kong since 1997 and which was due to last at least until 2047.
The National Security Law, although yet to be published in full, is understood to criminalise dissent, treason and collusion with foreign forces – often characterised by the authorities in Beijing as ‘terrorism’ even though it has none of the characteristics that people usually associate with the term.
Treason could be as broadly defined as to include calling for Hong Kong to be independent of China, or for the universal suffrage which is also promised in Hong Kong’s basic law but has never been fully implemented, as the Legislative Council which at least formally runs Hong Kong day to day is partly elected and partly appointed.
Collusion with foreign forces is also not clearly defined, but could include working with international bodies like the Special Representatives appointed by the UN Human Rights Council or with politicians in the European Parliament, Japan or the USA. That is one reason why a huge number of such Special Representatives and other UN experts issued a call during its passage in the National People’s Congress in Beijing to reject the National Security Law.
The growing authoritarianism of the Chinese regime – of which the imposition of the National Security Law and the creation of a new national security infrastructure for Hong Kong are just the latest examples – should be a cause of concern not only to those who have expressed solidarity with Hong Kong’s democracy and human rights defenders.
If not resisted, it will deepen the trend away from democracy which the global coronavirus pandemic has revealed. As the 2020 Global Rights Index, launched by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) on 18 June, concluded, there has been an increase in the number of countries that deny or constrain freedom of speech, which shows the fragility of democracies while the number of countries restricting access to justice has remained unacceptably high.
The ITUC, representing over 200 million trade unionists in 163 countries and territories around the world has responded to the National Security Law by calling for:
- cessation of all restrictions on freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of association, the right to organise, and civil law abuse of peaceful protesters;
- respect for trade union and other human rights by Chinese and Hong Kong authorities;
- respect for the continued autonomy of Hong Kong and revocation of the national security law; and
- implementation of universal suffrage in Hong Kong.
The European Parliament’s recent resolution on the National Security Law is a good example of what legislators and governments across the democratic world should be calling for, but it is vitally important that those governments act together. Otherwise the Chinese government will attempt to pick them off one by one with the sort of bullying and coercion that China itself suffered from the imperial powers in the past and which is used to justify much of China’s aggressive and expansionist approach to global diplomacy in recent decades.
We should not forget the past, but we must remember that the very same struggles for democracy which revolutionised so many imperial powers around the world should be supported in Hong Kong too. We must not fail the people of Hong Kong.