Why ASEAN should reject China’s controversial Hong Kong national security law

Photo: Studio Incendo / CC BY

China’s new security law for Hong Kong will considerably erode the city’s autonomy. Once implemented, China will have legislative protection to crush all forms of opposition in Hong Kong and ASEAN cannot afford to remain silent, as doing so will only embolden Beijing’s assertiveness in Southeast Asia.

By Umair Jamal

Last week, China’s National People’s Congress voted 2,878-to-1 in support of a national security law for semiautonomous Hong Kong. According to publicly available information, the law will criminalize all acts of secession, subversion, terrorism and activities which may undermine China’s interests in Hong Kong. Under the law, China can also set-up a security apparatus in Hong Kong without any oversight from the local authorities.

Though the law likely won’t be implemented until late August, the resolution is expected to effectively end Hong Kong’s financial, political and legal autonomy from mainland China.

What does China’s new national security law mean for Hong Kong?

The law will reportedly bypass Hong Kong’s current administrative structures and raises serious questions about the relevancy of the city’s sovereignty, promised under the “one country, two systems” framework. The Chinese government may curtail Hong Kong citizens’ electoral rights and access to a separate legal and economic framework.

Beijing may use the law to subsequently lead a hardline crackdown against the city’s pro-democracy forces that have denounced China’s control of the territory. In the name of national defense, China is preparing to virtually kill hopes and aspirations of Hong Kong’s people to have a more open and fair governance system that can also challenge Beijing’s claims over the territory.

The challenge of Hong Kong’s integration with China

Beijing views the anti-government protests in Hong Kong as a challenge to its rule. In recent years, public demonstrations and mass movements have called for wider democratic participation in decision making processes and rejected China’s interference in Hong Kong’s internal affairs.

In 2019 and early this year, Hong Kong was rocked by anti-China protests for months over a controversial bill that would have permitted the extradition of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy leaders to mainland China. The size of the current protests against China’s proposed security law underscores the pervasive public frustration against Beijing.

For China, the rise of pro-democracy forces in Hong Kong is a crisis for the so-called sovereignty that Beijing claims over Hong Kong, Taiwan and other regional territorial disputes, including claims over the South China Sea. China has been committing human rights abuses in Hong Kong for years without any legislative cover.

In this regard, the highly controversial security law marks the start of Beijing pushing authoritarian rule more openly than before. China has now proposed highly oppressive legislation that stands to curb human rights and public freedoms and undermine Hong Kong’s sovereignty. This also sends a clear message to countries that have territorial disputes with Beijing.

Will the international community stand up for Hong Kong?

It is unlikely that Beijing is going to roll back the proposed legislation without forceful pressure from the international community. However, with the international community facing a serious public health crisis and the United States leadership battling a domestic political crisis, a forceful response is unlikely at this point. This opportunity may be one reason that Beijing has chosen now as the time to bring Hong Kong completely under its rule.

Mike Pompeo Meets With Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing flickr photo by U.S. Department of State shared as a Public Domain United States Government Work (PD)

Already, expectations that the United States will take a tough stance against China’s move have been met with disappointment. A day before China’s vote on the proposed security law, Mike Pompeo, the United States secretary of state, released a statement noting that “While the United States once hoped that free and prosperous Hong Kong would provide a model for authoritarian China, it is now clear that China is modeling Hong Kong after itself. The United States stands with the people of Hong Kong as they struggle against the [Chinese Communist Party’s] increasing denial of the autonomy that they were promised.”

For Hong Kong, Washington’s stance is nothing less than abandonment and acceptance of China’s hold over the territory. It is possible that in the coming months and years, countries like the United Kingdom, Australia and even the United States will not have much diplomatic and political space to engage with the Hong Kong authorities.

A lot will depend on how ASEAN member states react to China’s move

With Washington unlikely to play the role of a deterring force, countries in the region need to unite against China’s totalitarian and expansionist rule. ASEAN may not have the necessary political and economic means to challenge China’s national security law for Hong Kong, but it is important that Southeast Asia’s leadership condemn Beijing’s oppressive move to safeguard the region’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Surprisingly, so far, ASEAN member states have remained silent over China’s proposed law. All member states have refrained from issuing any statements that could annoy the Chinese leadership. Perhaps ASEAN views China’s position on Hong Kong as part of its internal affairs that doesn’t require a policy response.

“They [ASEAN member states] will be more concerned about Washington’s actions and the subsequent reactions from Beijing, rather than the national security law for Hong Kong,” says Dylan Loh, an assistant professor of public policy and global affairs at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University.

The dispute over the new law is set to impact ASEAN’s territorial integrity in the long run. The development should serve as a warning to Southeast Asian states that have territorial disputes with China—it merits a decisive and clear response from countries that have maritime disputes with China, particularly Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam

ASEAN should unite forces with other states in the region, such as Taiwan, to frustrate China’s claims over Hong Kong. Failure to do so will mean that ASEAN may not have the necessary political support in the near future when China moves to make further claims on various islands and zones in the South China Sea. Beijing’s attempts to legitimize sweeping claims of sovereignty over the sea should be countered by ASEAN—if not overtly then covertly. ASEAN must overcome regional disputes and other deep-seated contentions to send a clear message to China.

About the Author

Umair Jamal
Umair Jamal is a freelance journalist and a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Otago, New Zealand. He can be reached at umair.jamal@outlook.com and on Twitter @UmairJamal15