China has passed a new security law for Hong Kong. It enables the communist regime to act harder against opposition politicians and activists. They are therefore concerned that the democratic freedoms enjoyed by the city will be broken down. Four questions about the protests in Hong Kong and the new law.
How does Hong Kong actually relate to China?
Hong Kong is an important financial and economic center. Many multinationals have their Asian headquarters there. During the seventies of the last century, the city played a major role in the economic opening up of China.
Hong Kong has long served as the window to the world for the communist giant and continued to be important to the country's economic growth thereafter, even after the emergence of mainland financial centers such as Shanghai and Shenzhen.
It is a semi-autonomous region of China. That status was negotiated when the former British Crown Colony was transferred in 1997. China committed to the "one country two systems principle" for a period of fifty years. Macau, which was transferred by Portugal in 1999, has a similar status.
It means that Hong Kong has its own economic and administrative governance and will not be fully incorporated until 2047. The judiciary is independent and the city has freedom of expression and association.
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Why are pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong concerned?
Despite the guarantee that Hong Kong's status will not change until 2047, many Hong Kong residents fear the increasing influence of China.
At the time of the UK's handover, it was widely believed that the growth of capitalism and rising prosperity in that country would lead to greater democracy. But under Xi Jinping, China is now on course to become the most powerful country in the world, without that expected democratization.
In fact, the Chinese Communist Party is at the forefront of the use of technical means to guarantee the police state well into the 21st century. Troubled minorities, such as the Uyghurs in Sinkiang Province, are being brutally repressed.
The wave of protests in Hong Kong started in early 2017, after the government of chief executive Carrie Lam (roughly the prime minister of the semi-autonomous region) proposed an amendment to the extradition laws. It now had to be possible to extradite suspects to China so that they could be tried there.
Critics feared this would jeopardize the independence of the judiciary in Hong Kong and the safety of political dissidents.
How did the demonstrations go?
In the months that followed, hundreds of thousands of Hong Kong people took to the streets to protest the change.
The demonstrations became increasingly grim: the city's airport was paralyzed, parliamentarians clashed, organized crime was called in to attack protesters, and protesters were bombarded by police with tear gas and bullets, which are sometimes and sometimes were not rubber.
Lam first announced that the amendment would be frozen indefinitely and then declared the new extradition law "dead," but it was not until September that she announced that she would officially withdraw it, which happened a month later. Too late, the activists said.
The mass demonstrations continued and the city's economy went into recession, the first in a decade.
In November, the police besieged the polytechnic university campus. More than a thousand students were arrested. Neighborhood council elections were held later that month, which served as a barometer of public opinion. In seventeen of the eighteen hamlets, pro-democracy candidates won a majority council.
The arrival of the corona virus early this year made large demonstrations impossible. The police took the opportunity to arrest dozens of pro-democracy activists. As the lockdown in Hong Kong eased, demonstrations started again. For the time being, these are less large-scale than before the corona crisis.
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How is China handling the protests and what is the controversial new security law?
Beijing has long refrained from direct interference, although the Chinese government has widely condemned the demonstrations and put troops on the border.
That changed in May of this year, when the Chinese parliament gave the green light to a new security law. Hong Kong should have had such a law before, but in the past this ran into great political and social resistance to it.
The law was passed this week. That happened in great mystery. The full text of the law has not yet been made public, apart from some of the details reported by state media.
What do we know? The law criminalizes the pursuit of secession (secession), the undermining of government authority, terrorism and cooperation with foreign powers or other external actors.
Beijing will establish a new national security agency in Hong Kong, which will, inter alia, gather intelligence and prosecute violators of the security law. Suspects can also be extradited to China.
The most important aspect of the security law is that the Chinese government alone is allowed to determine how to interpret it - it does not involve Hong Kong politics or justice. If the security law conflicts with the laws of Hong Kong, the former will take precedence.