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Politics

Hong Kong's 'rule of law' put to test by primacy of security bill

New details show Beijing's move for sweeping control over city's courts

Pro-democracy protesters gather at a mall in Hong Kong on June 15. Such gatherings could become illegal under China's proposed security law.   © Reuters

HONG KONG -- The rule of law in Hong Kong, which allowed the city to develop into a vibrant and competitive financial hub, appears on the brink of collapse as China moves to pass national security legislation as early as this month.

"The national security law is the end of Hong Kong's autonomy and freedoms, since Beijing is imposing an authoritarian legal system upon the city's liberal common law system," pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong said Sunday on Twitter.

Details of the legislation reported by China's state-run Xinhua News Agency on Saturday stunned legal experts, particularly the passage giving the Standing Committee of China's National People's Congress the power to interpret the law.

"The provisions of this law shall prevail when local laws of [Hong Kong] are inconsistent with this law," according to an excerpt from the draft published by Xinhua.

Hong Kong has maintained a common law system established under British colonial rule, even after the city's handover to the Communist Party-controlled mainland in 1997. This has underpinned the "one country, two systems" framework since then. Placing the national security law above Hong Kong's legal system strikes at the core of that framework and could undermine human rights protections in the city, as well as its competitiveness as a business hub.

The city currently has many judges with foreign citizenship who are willing to rule against the government. But judges for cases dealing with China's security law will be appointed by Hong Kong's chief executive, fueling concerns that they would only issue rulings that are convenient for Beijing.

What constitutes secession, subversion, terrorism or foreign interference -- the four main areas covered by the security law -- remains murky as well. Pro-independence protests and criticism against the Communist Party might qualify as secession or subversion. Hong Kong activists who urge the U.S. and Europe to impose sanctions on China could be found guilty of foreign interference.

Changes are already afoot in Hong Kong's schools and media outlets. A teacher was denied a contract renewal after she allowed students to perform the anthem of the pro-democracy protests. A popular satirical show was forced off the air, and many outlets have begun toning down criticisms against Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Beijing likely is rushing to enact the security law ahead of Hong Kong's legislative election in September. China's grip on the city would weaken if the pro-democracy side wins a majority on the Legislative Council.

But if the security law takes effect before candidates register for the election on July 18, China could use it to bar pro-democracy candidates from running.

Pro-Beijing forces in the city have suggested that certain individuals who violate the law could be extradited to the mainland. Some Hong Kongers are shying away from the protests in the city, a massive movement that began about a year ago.

Though democratic activists are alarmed by the legislation, they can do little to stop it. Hong Kong labor unions held a vote Saturday on whether to strike against the security law. But they received about 9,000 votes, far below their goal of 60,000. An annual demonstration on July 1 to commemorate Hong Kong's handover is expected to be canceled as well due to the coronavirus outbreak.

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