National security laws must do justice to Hong Kong
NPC adviser Li Fei says it’s about time they were passed, but they should not be rushed and must be in line with the legal and legislative systems of the city
The blending of Beijing’s authority over Hong Kong and its high degree of autonomy has been a subject of debate since publication of the State Council’s white paper in 2014. Further insight was provided yesterday by a leading adviser to the National People’s Congress, Li Fei. The head of the Basic Law Committee said Beijing would jointly govern the city with the local authorities and directly manage certain important issues. It remains to be seen precisely how this will work. Both one country and two systems must continue to be respected.
But Li left no room for doubt on one issue: Hong Kong’ obligation to pass new national security laws. These are required by Article 23 of the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s de facto constitution. Li said the duty to pass the laws, which would cover treason, sedition, secession, subversion and the theft of state secrets, was unavoidable. His remarks are an indication that Beijing is growing impatient as it is now 20 years since the city returned to China and this constitutional requirement to protect national sovereignty has still not been fulfilled. He also noted there had been resistance to the central government, and talk of localism and independence.
An attempt to pass the laws in 2003 was shelved after a mass protest prompted by concerns they would curb the city’s freedoms. Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor has said she will not seek to pass the laws until social conditions are favourable. This is understandable. The community has been deeply divided since the Occupy civil disobedience movement of 2014 in support of faster progress towards democracy and time is needed for wounds to heal.
But the legal requirement to pass the laws remains. Hong Kong should demonstrate it is serious and preliminary studies by the Department of Justice could begin. However, this is not a process that can be rushed. There must be plenty of time for public consultation and consideration by lawmakers. The proposed laws will need to be explained and efforts made to build a consensus on the form they should take. The Basic Law requires Hong Kong to pass the legislation on its own and the laws must, therefore, be consistent with Hong Kong’s legal and legislative systems. The government has previously promised the legislation will comply with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. This promise must be kept and is, in any event, required by the Basic Law.
Passing the new national security laws cannot be avoided forever. To pass them would help win Beijing’s trust and may make democratic reform easier to achieve. Careful thought needs to be given to the timing and, especially, to the content of the laws. They must do justice to both one country and two systems.