Beijing’s top official in Hong Kong has called for controversial national security laws, shelved since 2003, to be urgently passed to combat radical violence, foreign interference and pro-independence forces in the region.
The comments, from the head of China’s liaison office in Hong Kong, Luo Huining, come amid escalating accusations of overreach by Beijing into the city’s legislative council and judiciary.
On Wednesday it was reported that the independence of Hong Kong’s judicial system was under attack from the Communist Party leadership in Beijing,senior judges told Reuters.
They said that the independent judiciary, the cornerstone of the city’s broad freedoms, is in a fight for its survival.
Judges and lawyers say there are signs Beijing is trying to limit the authority of Hong Kong courts to rule on core constitutional matters.
People close to the city’s top judge, Geoffrey Ma, say he has to contend with Communist Party officials pushing Beijing’s view that the rule of law ultimately must be a tool to preserve one-party rule.
In a speech for China’s national security education day on Wednesday, Luo said Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement was a “major blow” to the rule of law, threatening the one country, two systems principle under which it operates with China, and was influenced by pro-independence and radical violent forces.
Some in the city’s legal establishment are now bracing for the possibility that China will begin to meddle in the appointment of new judges, following objections by some pro-Beijing lawmakers in Hong Kong to two recent appointments on the top court. With the search currently underway for at least one new justice for the top court, the three judges who spoke to Reuters said they feared vacancies could create an opening for Beijing.
Any intervention in the selection process, said one of the justices, would likely spark resignations on the bench.
Luo said, many people have “a rather weak concept of national security.”
“If the anthill eroding the role of rule of law is not cleared, the dam of national security will be destroyed and the wellbeing of all Hong Kong residents will be damaged.”
He said efforts must be made as soon as possible to address the shortcomings in the region’s legal system and enforcement mechanisms for safeguarding national security, namely by passing the long-dormant and highly controversial article 23 legislation. Article 23 of Hong Kong’s mini constitution, the basic law, says it “shall enact laws on its own to prohibit any act of treason, secession, sedition, subversion against the Central People’s Government, or theft of state secrets”, and prohibit various forms of foreign political interference.
An attempt to pass such laws in 2003 sparked mass protests among the population of the semi-autonomous city, and the legislation was shelved.
In her own speech on Wednesday, Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, echoed Luo’s sentiments, declaring recent events including the protests as threats to national security.
Luo’s call to revive the law comes at an uncertain time in Hong Kong, which has been beset by nine months of mass protests, initially against a bill to allow extradition to China but which grew into a wider pro-democracy movement.
While protests have largely stopped amid the coronavirus pandemic, tensions remain high and this week Beijing was accused of interfering with Hong Kong’s legislative council and threatening the independence of its judiciary.