Carrie Lam should leave national security law on back burner
As Hong Kong’s new leader admits, the conditions are simply not favourable for legislation now; she would do well to focus on livelihood issues that can win bipartisan support
Among the first pronouncements that Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor made as she took over the reins of government was the city’s need to introduce a national security law. Does she mean business? Probably not.
If you want to tie up the government and cause more social conflicts, there is no surer way than to reintroduce legislation for national security and universal suffrage. It’s certain to absorb the full attention and resources of key officials and make them neglect other policy areas to improve people’s lives over the next five years. If anyone appreciates that, it’s Lam. That’s why her goal, as she says, is to create the right conditions for future national security legislation, but without a time frame.
The fight over full democracy led to the three-month Occupy protests in 2014. The last attempt to introduce a national security law in 2003 triggered the largest single mass rally in Hong Kong’s post-handover history and the resignations of a security chief and the chief executive. Arguably, even those troubled times presented better conditions than now.
Mainland hardliners think a draconian security law is needed to counter rising dissent and separatism in Hong Kong. Many pan-democrats consider full democracy as an end in itself. But at present, there are no clear paths to achieving either goal without having our society tear itself apart.
Beijing already has all the national security laws it needs to intervene in Hong Kong should it suspect treason, secession, sedition, subversion, theft of state secrets or terrorism. Maybe it sees advantages in the city’s security services having the powers to deal with such threats on their own. But that’s a secondary issue.
Thanks to the rise of anti-mainland sentiment, the central government increasingly sees the city’s democratic aspirations in terms of national security. This means it is unlikely to relax those restrictions set out in the 2014 white paper on the screening of chief executive candidates. But that’s a deal breaker for the pan-democrats who, in any case, don’t have a credible leadership to launch any meaningful negotiation, let alone deliver a deal.
Lam knows she has a better shot working with the opposition to score some policy successes in the next five years. The new HK$5 billion push for education funding could be such a bipartisan template.
By rebuilding trust, we may then be in a better position to tackle national security and full democracy.