How China’s new national security law will hobble Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement

China finalized Hong Kong’s national security law (NSL) in late June, imposing a number of restrictions after a secretive process without public consultation and legislative deliberation. A mid-June survey conducted by the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute (PORI) shows a majority of Hong Kongers firmly oppose the law, even before the full impact of the measure was clear.

Critics call the NSL “the end of Hong Kong” because it operates above the Basic Law (Hong Kong’s mini-constitution), making it easier for Chinese and Hong Kong authorities to target political activities challenging Beijing’s authority.

What will this mean for Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement? Here’s what you need to know.

The NSL puts protesters at risk

The annual July 1 protest of the 1997 handover of Hong Kong, normally attended by a large crowd, had only a few thousand marchers this year. Police arrested 350 people, charging 10 with newly designated offenses such as displaying the Hong Kong independent flag. The new law also bans and criminalizes the protest movement’s “Liberate Hong Kong, Revolution of Our Time” slogan, along with the “Glory to Hong Kong” anthem. Some protesters replaced vibrant protest art with blank placards to protest the “white terror” that has descended in the city.

The new law also strengthens Beijing’s hard and soft repression on communities vital to the sustainability of the movement. Local political groups such as Demosistō (led by Joshua Wong) disbanded on June 30, on the eve of the law’s promulgation. Fearful of repercussions from the Hong Kong government, many pro-democracy businesses that formed the “yellow economy circle” removed all protest-themed decorations from their storefronts and halted the sale of protest-related products.

Large-scale mobilization in Hong Kong may become more difficult. Instead, protesters might begin to shift their focus toward the “3Ds” — decentralize, diversify and daily — as ways to continue their resistance against Beijing’s crackdown. Decentralized and diversified tactics like nonobedience, volunteering in communities and withdrawing money from mainland banks, for instance, may leave people less vulnerable to police repression.

Extraterritoriality sends shock wave beyond Hong Kong

Chapter 3 of the law vaguely defines activities of collusion with foreign forces, which include “incitement,” “assistance,” “abetment” and “provision” of financial supports to undermine Beijing. Article 38 also asserts extraterritorial jurisdiction, meaning the law can apply to anyone — even foreign nationals — for an offense committed anywhere.

Many Hong Kong activists suspect the law aims to undermine international pressure on Beijing, including from the U.S. Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act and Hong Kong Autonomy Act, which threaten economic sanctions on businesses and individuals that help restrict Hong Kong’s autonomy.

Capital flight, particularly from finance and banking entities in Hong Kong, probably will intensify as companies worry about the negative financial repercussions if they do not toe Beijing’s line. Beijing has twisted the arms of international companies, including U.K.-based banks HSBC and Standard Chartered, to sign a petition backing the law.

The law may also have dire implications for academic freedom and international collaboration. Hosting workshops and conferences in Hong Kong could put both foreign and local scholars and organizers at risk. Many Hong Kong scholars are already wary about making comments or publishing research that could upset the Chinese government.

Tech companies, including Facebook, Google and WhatsApp, have said they will temporarily stop complying with requests for user data from the Hong Kong authorities, as this information could be used to surveil the populace and incriminate dissidents.

Several countries have issued warnings against traveling to Hong Kong, citing risks of arbitrary detention on national security grounds. The U.K., U.S., Taiwan and Australian governments are easing immigration criteria allowing Hong Kongers to seek asylum and foreign citizenship. Some are considering terminating extradition agreements with Hong Kong to protect their own citizens.

Where does this leave Hong Kong’s legislative election?

Hoping to repeat their landslide victory in last November’s District Council elections, the pro-democracy camp launched the “35+” campaign to capture more than half of the Legislative Council or LegCo’s 70 seats, with 35 seats directly elected by all eligible voters in geographical constituencies and 35 seats allocated by functional constituencies, which comprise only members of various business sectors. Occupy Central organizer Benny Tai and former legislator Au Nok-hin coordinated the pro-democracy primary on July 11 and 12 to select favored candidates in each district to be officially nominated for September’s LegCo election.

The city’s pro-democracy opposition has never won a majority in LegCo elections. The electoral system — proportional representation with Hare quota — does not favor large parties, creating a fragmented partisan landscape where pro-democracy parties find themselves in bitter divisions competing in the geographic constituency voting. Meanwhile, the functional constituency serves to sustain the state-business alliance, giving political privileges to business sectors.

Aside from this uneven playing field, the “35+” plan is facing extra political hurdles. Article 35 stipulates any resident convicted of security national offenses will be banned from running in local elections, while lawmakers and government officials will be immediately evicted from their posts if found guilty. Erick Tsang, the head of the Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Bureau, warned recently that organizing and participating in the primary may violate the law. PORI, a co-organizer of the primary, reports police raided its offices just a day before the primary.

Despite the threats of the new law, more than 600,000 people voted in the primary, far exceeding the organizers’ estimates. Many candidates with strong recognition in the movement have found themselves leading the poll in all five districts, signaling a changing of the guard within the pro-democracy camp.

It is uncertain whether and when any (if not all) pro-democracy candidates face disqualification, but candidates will no doubt expect tight scrutiny of their speeches and stances on the national security law and other government policies.

If the pro-democracy candidates fail to win a LegCo majority this fall, they will lose their veto power over major legislation. That would leave the LegCo little ability to stand up to policies from the Hong Kong government and Beijing aimed at further eroding Hong Kong’s guaranteed autonomy and the rule of law under the “one country, two systems” framework.

Maggie Shum, research associate at the Keough School of Global Affairs at the University of Notre Dame, is a native of Hong Kong. Her research focuses on party organization, participatory institutions and contentious politics in Latin America and Hong Kong.

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