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.
Huining, a 65-year-old Communist party loyalist appointed in January, was predicted at the time to push back against the pro-democracy movement.
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.
Many people have “a rather weak concept of national security”, he said.
“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.
The Hong Kong writer and activist Kong Tsung-gan said the Chinese Communist party was “doubling down” ahead of possible crackdowns on the pro-democracy movement before elections later this year.
“It’s clear it’s called on pro-CCPers in Hong Kong, including government, to parrot its lines – [but is it] a sign of an actual persecution campaign afoot or just more hot air?”
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.
On Wednesday, Reuters reported three senior judges had warned that the independence of Hong Kong’s judicial system was “under assault” by the mainland government.
The report cited more than two dozen interviews with judges, lawyers and diplomats, in saying judges were warned not to “absolve” protesters. There are also fears Beijing will begin to interfere with new judicial appointments.
It said Beijing was seeking to hobble the judiciary, posing the gravest threat since the territory was handed back to China by the UK in 1997.
In a ruling that partially upheld a face mask ban enacted by Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s court of final appeal also pushed back at accusations that its role in assessing the constitutionality of laws was an affront to Beijing.
“We know from our interactions with senior mainland judges that they just don’t get Hong Kong at all,” said one judge. “They always want to know why Hong Kong is so confused and chaotic, and not ‘patriotic’.”
This week the liaison office and the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office (HKMAO) also accused opposition lawmakers of abusing their power and creating a legislation backlog, failing to appoint a House committee chairman, and paralysing the legislative council.
The HKMAO, which was defended by pro-Beijing figures in the legislative council, suggested the lawmakers might be guilty of misconduct.
Pan-democrat lawmakers rejected the statement, accusing Beijing of “blatant intervention” and breaching the separation of powers, which escalated into a continuing war of words with pro-Beijing legislators.
On Wednesday, the Hong Kong bar association urged the Chinese offices to exercise restraint, as its statements could “easily be perceived as interference in contravention of the principle of one country, two systems”.