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Interview

Hong Kong security laws apply to foreigners with 'no exceptions'

NPC member warns bill opponents face exclusion from legislative election

Pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong announces his plans to run for legislature in Hong Kong on June 19.   © Reuters

HONG KONG -- All candidates running for Hong Kong's upcoming Legislative Council election will be required to sign a letter pledging their allegiance to the Basic Law, the city's constitution, including the proposed national security laws, a member of China's top decision-making body told the Nikkei Asian Review in an interview on Monday.

Tam Yiu-chung, Hong Kong's sole delegate on the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress, said the new policy will be stipulated in the security legislation. He said failure to comply could result in the disqualification of a candidacy, but a final decision will be made by the city's election affairs officers.

"This request is sensible and reasonable. As a LegCo member, you are part of the establishment," Tam said. "There is no reason for you to oppose the 'one country' [principle] or harm the national security... or to incite others to split the country."

Six pro-democracy lawmakers were disqualified from the current legislative term for not properly taking their oath of office. In the oath, lawmakers are required to pledge their loyalty to Hong Kong and the People's Republic of China. The next election will be held in September.

Tam's comments came after an NPC session ended on Saturday, the first meeting since Beijing approved the plan to impose national security laws on the former British colony, bypassing Hong Kong's legislature. The proposed legislation will outlaw activities involving "separatism, subversion, terrorism and foreign interference."

"Everyone is equal before the law," Tam Yiu-chung, Hong Kong's sole delegate in the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress, told the Nikkei Asian Review. "There is no exception for people or businesses in the city." (Photo by Takeshi Kihara) 

Nathan Law Kwun-chung, one of the lawmakers who was disqualified over the oath, said the move to require allegiance to the security laws reflects Beijing's fear that pro-democracy candidates could win a majority in the Legislative Council, even though the electoral system is designed in a way that favors pro-Beijing candidates. Last November, the pro-democracy camp won a landslide victory in the lower-level district council elections.

"Beijing has tightened its red line over the past few years and our institutions have eroded gradually," said Law, who is planning to run in the coming election. "But we definitely will not succumb to Beijing's pressure and change our stance" to support the security laws.

While Tam did not disclose details of the draft legislation, he said the new laws will also be applied to foreign businesses and media.

"Everyone is equal before the law. There is no exception for people or businesses in the city," he said, adding that businesspeople "need not to worry" as long as they do not transgress the red line of national security. "Only a very small number of people involved in extreme behavior will be targeted."

The International Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong expressed concerns over the looming security laws on Sunday, calling for a transparent public consultation during the lawmaking process.

"There is a lack of clarity but much uncertainty and concern about Hong Kong's economy and individual freedoms and safety," the ICC-HK said.

Asked if journalists reporting on sensitive issues -- such as calls for Hong Kong independence and the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown -- could be penalized, Tam urged companies to "seek professional legal advice" after the security laws are enacted.

"We will have a carefully planned mechanism to evaluate actions case-by-case," he said. "We will have to prove, for example, that a person has a well-developed organization to initiate action that threatens national security."

Hong Kong pro-democracy activists Nathan Law, left, and Joshua Wong speak to reporters in response to the national security legislation on June 3. Law told the Nikkei Asian Review on Monday that he and other activists "will not succumb to Beijing's pressure."   © Reuters

In a survey conducted by the Society of Publishers in Asia on Monday, 80% of the respondents said the security laws would be harmful to their Hong Kong business operations, with more than half of those polled said they would consider moving their data operations out of the territory.

The new security laws will allow Beijing to overrule Hong Kong's legal system by giving the central government jurisdiction over cases under "certain circumstances," China's official Xinhua News Agency reported over the weekend, suggesting that suspects could be extradited to mainland China and tried in courts directly under Communist Party control. Hong Kong's chief executive will also have the power to appoint judges handling related court cases.

Tam denied accusations from Hong Kong's legal sector that such measures will undermine the city's rule of law and independent judiciary, underpinned by the "one country, two systems" framework as part of the 1997 British handover to China. He stressed that the chief executive will appoint "a pool of professional judges" who have not shown a biased political stance.

"The fact that the central government allows local authorities to handle most national security cases has already reflected that Beijing has attached much confidence and trust to the Hong Kong government," he said. "It shows that Beijing respects Hong Kong's high degree of autonomy."

National security crimes are likely to carry sentences of three to 10 years imprisonment under the current draft, Tam said, but there will be further discussions in the next NPC session scheduled June 28 to 30, when a vote is "possible" to take place.

"Some people complained that the punishments are too lenient," he said, as similar crimes can lead to lifelong imprisonment and even the death penalty on the mainland. "We will see whether adjustments are needed."

Charles Li, the CEO of Hong Kong Exchanges & Clearing, which operates the city's stock exchange, said on Monday that the security laws are necessary.

"What is clear today is, we have to introduce a tiger. China wants to make sure it's not a toothless tiger that's not able to bite when it needs to bite," he said at the Bloomberg Invest Global Summit. "But obviously, Hong Kong wants to ensure that this tiger bites only when it needs to and not all the time. The most delicate balance is the key."

Still, worries linger among the city's business community. "In the medium-term... everyone in Hong Kong will be subject to far more surveillance by both the local police and mainland agencies without previous protections," analyst Simon Pritchard wrote in a report published by Gavekal Research on Monday.

"The potential for unregulated snooping to threaten commercial entities is clear, especially if they end up in disputes with powerful state-backed entities in China," he wrote.

"This is why a Hong Kong sanitized of fundamental common law rights may not be able to sustain its ecosystem of professional services and fiduciary activities. It is why Hong Kong's days as a top-tier global financial center may be numbered, even if it does well as a leading Chinese center."

Additional reporting by Nikkei staff writer Narayanan Somasundaram.

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