When Hong Kong was handed over from British to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, its inhabitants were reassured that their way of life would remain the same. That commitment was made legally binding through the Sino-British Joint Declaration, which guarantees Hong Kong full autonomy except in foreign affairs and defense.
But in recent years Beijing has steadily chipped away at that commitment, with another encroachment last week. On June 14, the Hong Kong Legislative Council, which is semi-free although increasingly controlled by Beijing, passed a controversial plan that will allow China to carve out a part of Hong Kong’s territory where Chinese — not Hong Kong — laws will apply.
Why does it matter? Under the plan, Hong Kong law, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and other existing provisions for the protection of human rights, will not apply to part of Hong Kong’s West Kowloon railway terminus and all operating trains going between Hong Kong and mainland China.
Instead, Chinese authorities will be able to enforce Chinese criminal law in the heart of Hong Kong, including national security and public order laws commonly used by the Chinese government to charge anyone who criticizes the state with vaguely-worded offenses such as “creating a disturbance,” or “inciting subversion.” Pro-democracy legislators, civil society groups, and the Hong Kong Bar Association have criticized the plan for lacking any constitutional foundation and violating the “one country, two systems” arrangement.
This is yet another disturbing example of China’s blatant disregard for Hong Kong’s rule of law. In recent years, the Chinese government has blocked progress towards universal suffrage, and, in 2016, interfered in Hong Kong’s judiciary by handing down an “interpretation” of the Basic Law, compelling the High Court to remove six democratically elected legislators from office. Hong Kong authorities have also brought politically-motivated charges against dozens of pro-democracy activists and barred some from running for the Legislative Council.
This new arrangement, which will facilitate arbitrary detention and unjust prosecutions for exercise of fundamental rights in Hong Kong – alongside these other encroachments – should be seen as a concerted threat to rule of law and basic rights by Beijing. They may not seem as dramatic as tanks rolling across the border, but the effect is likely going to be the same.