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Opinion

Hong Kong national security law is there to protect city

One country, two systems will endure as important part of territory's success

| Hong Kong
The Victoria Harbor of Hong Kong, pictured on May 26: many local people want a return to a more stable environment.   © AP

Bernard Chan is the Convenor of the Non Official Members of the Executive Council of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People's Republic of China. He is also a Deputy to the National People's Congress of the People's Republic of China.

On May 28, I and around 2,800 other members of China's National People's Congress in Beijing voted in favor of a decision to draft and implement a national security law for Hong Kong. The aim is to tackle separatism, subversion of state power, terrorist activities and interference in local affairs by overseas forces.

It has attracted a considerable amount of attention not only in Hong Kong but worldwide. Much of that attention has been negative, and much of the coverage has suggested that this move marks the end of Hong Kong in some way. We have seen claims that it will damage the city's autonomy, threaten its people's rights and freedoms -- including the rule of law -- and reduce its attraction as a business center if the law provokes economic sanctions from the U.S. and other countries.

One major complication is that the wording of the law is still not known. Until we have a draft -- hopefully in the coming weeks -- there is bound to be some uncertainty.

The Hong Kong government and officials in Beijing want to assure the public that these laws are justified. The idea is not to harm the one country, two systems principle, which the central government wants to be successful. The aim is to specifically target a small minority of individuals and actions -- and not harm ordinary residents and businesses. The justification is that the central government sees actual threats to national security now forming in Hong Kong.

Police officers patrol outside the liaison office on May 22: the central government sees actual threats to national security now forming in Hong Kong.   © AP

Unlike most jurisdictions, Hong Kong does not have national security laws. Since 1997, the city has been supposed to pass them itself, but it failed to do so due to local opposition -- notably in 2003.

In recent years, we have seen growing unrest. Last year, this involved extensive street violence, serious property damage and did significant harm to many sectors of the economy. These events also disrupted residents' lives, for example through transport cancellations.

The events involved calls for Hong Kong independence and physical attacks on public institutions including the central government's Liaison Office and the Legislative Council building. The police have portrayed some of the protests as involving suspected terrorist activities, and Chinese officials allege involvement by foreign forces.

The central government decided that it has no choice but to step in and implement a national security law directly. I think it is important to remember that many local people -- including businesses -- strongly want a return to a more stable environment.

Officials have stressed that there is no need for individuals or businesses to fear. They are aware that Hong Kong values such things as rule of law, a free press, the right to criticize the government and the right to peacefully protest. They are also aware that the city's status as a leading business center depends on a robust and independent legal system and a free flow of information.

The key will be to ensure that the new laws are clearly drafted and very specific, so there are no gray areas and the legislation fits into our existing legal structure. It is important that our legal processes are followed, such as a presumption of innocence and the right to an open and fair trial. And it is essential that any mainland security personnel sent to Hong Kong operate within local laws.

National and Hong Kong governments realize the importance of these factors. I am personally confident that the new law will satisfy these conditions, and there will be no real change for most of us. Indeed, with any luck, the law may have a deterrent effect and not need to be used much at all. Hopefully, we can repeat the experience in Macao, where no one has been charged with breaking national security laws since they were introduced in 2009.

Such an outcome should also reassure foreign governments that the new law does not represent a significant change in Hong Kong's status as an autonomous economy.

One danger, however, is that Hong Kong is going to become a pawn in a growing conflict between China and the U.S. and perhaps other Western countries. We cannot rule out the possibility that the national security law will be used as a pretext for some sort of Western sanctions against China or Hong Kong alone.

I am cautiously optimistic about this. As Chinese officials have already made clear, Beijing would retaliate against any U.S. measures aimed at sanctioning Hong Kong or the mainland over this issue. No one would win, and many Western companies could lose out if we see a deterioration in the economic relationship.

I would also make the point that there are limits to what the U.S. or other countries can do in practice. Remember that foreign governments do not have any power over such key features of the Hong Kong economy as our low-tax regime and free-trade principles. Nor, realistically, can they change the currency peg or disrupt our free flow of capital.

Hopefully, everyone will relax when they see the exact wording of the new laws. The intention is not to change Hong Kong, but to enable it continue as a peaceful, prosperous and free society.

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