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Zheng Yanxiong, director of Beijing’s Office for Safeguarding National Security, says Hong Kong’s courts should serve the nation’s interests. Photo: Getty Images

Hong Kong’s judiciary should uphold country’s will, advance its interests, says Beijing’s national security chief in city

  • Zheng Yanxiong says city’s courts derive power from Beijing; rule of law only ‘castles in the air’ if national security is not defended
  • However, panellists at University of Hong Kong discussion offer dimmer view of security law, with one arguing it is taking ‘a toll on the civil society and media’

Hong Kong’s independent judiciary derives its authority from the central government, and as such, its decisions should reflect the country’s will and interests, according to the head of Beijing’s national security office in the city.

In a rare interview, published by a pro-Beijing magazine on the eve of the one-year anniversary of the imposition of the national security law, Zheng Yanxiong warned that Hong Kong’s much-vaunted rule of law would only be “castles in the air” if the legislation was not enforced.

“[Hong Kong’s] independent judiciary’s power is authorised by the National People’s Congress. It must highly manifest the national will and national interest, or else it will lose the legal premise of the authorisation,” said Zheng, who is the director of the Office for Safeguarding National Security.

“It will be the biggest loophole in the rule of law if national security is not safeguarded.”

Hong Kong police have arrested 117 people on suspicion of breaking the national security law since its imposition last year. Photo: AP

Zheng, who was appointed by Beijing to head the office last July, reiterated that national security was the fundamental prerequisite for the city’s stability and the long-term development of the “one country, two systems” framework under which it is governed.

“Once national security falls, the city will then be dominated by ideas of independence, mutual destruction and self-determination,” he told East Week magazine, part of the Sing Tao News Corporation. “How can we then secure ‘two systems’ when ‘one country’ is gone?”

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Zheng, who has kept a low profile in the city over the past year, also lavished praise on the local police force’s national security unit.

“The national security police unit, which was formed at a ‘time of chaos’, shoulders the sacred mission of safeguarding national security,” he said. “They deserve the respect, reverence and reliance of all Hongkongers.”

However, several legal experts at a panel discussion at the University of Hong Kong (HKU) on Tuesday offered a dimmer view of the national security law, pointing to how the legislation had reshaped the city over the past year, from its political system to its media landscape.

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Kent Roach, a University of Toronto law professor who specialises in comparing different national security legislations, said Hong Kong’s “is not a mild law”, arguing it went “beyond even the most illiberal practices of liberal democracies”.

He noted that in other jurisdictions, the common threshold for such national security offences involved acts like espionage or attempting to wage outright war.

But the recent use of the national security law to arrest several top executives and writers for the tabloid-style Apple Daily newspaper – contributing to its demise last week – showed Hong Kong’s legislation was taking “a toll on the civil society and media”, Roach argued.

Cherian George, associate dean of Baptist University’s school of communications, said he feared the reining in of the press would continue.

Police raid the headquarters of Apple Daily’s parent company earlier this month. Photo: AP

He also predicted the approach taken in the future could be even “more pernicious” than the arrests and asset freezes seen in the Apple Daily case, with the authorities using subtler tools such as economic pressure and administrative means to restrain the media.

Professor Ling Bing, who specialises in Chinese law at the University of Sydney, pointed to the Hong Kong legislation’s extraterritorial power. One year on, he said, it remained unclear just how the law would be applied outside the city.

A Hong Kong court’s ruling last year that an official English version of the law was not necessary had only made extraterritorial application more problematic, Ling added, as the legislation theoretically covered people around the world who do not speak Chinese.

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Zhu Han, a specialist in Chinese constitutional law at HKU, said that while it was legal for Beijing to impose the law – given the city was unable to do so on its own – it had deepened the central government’s reach into the Hong Kong bureaucracy and given it access for the first time ever to daily policymaking processes.

Since Beijing imposed the national security law on Hong Kong on June 30 last year, police have arrested 117 suspects from all walks of life – from a 15-year-old girl who allegedly waved a banner calling for the city’s independence, to the 73-year-old media tycoon Jimmy Lai Chee-ying, the founder of Apple Daily.

A total of 64 people have been charged in court under the law, which targets acts of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces.

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam touted the secrecy with which the security law was implemented in an interview published on Tuesday. Photo: Reuters
Meanwhile, in another interview with East Week, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor spoke approvingly of the total secrecy surrounding the implementation of the national security law a year ago, saying there were fewer than 10 local officials involved.

“I had to type some documents on my own to avoid the leakage of confidential information,” she said.

Also speaking to the same magazine, Lam’s predecessor, Leung Chun-ying, maintained that the public’s ignorance of the Basic Law – the city’s mini-constitution – and the opposition’s misjudgment of the status quo had forced the central government to take action on the national security front.

“The most sensational thing, which even opposition parties in other countries will not do, is that someone travelled to the United States and sought intervention. This definitely involved national security issues,” he said.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: ‘Decisions by judiciary should reflect country’s will’