Understanding the Causes of Hong Kong’s National Security Law
As Beijing unilaterally imposed the national security law on Hong Kong last year, right before the twenty-third anniversary of the city’s handover to China from British rule, scholars have argued that the legislation signaled the “end of Hong Kong” and likened it to a “dagger that has stabbed into the heart of the city’s liberal foundations.”  Others, such as Lord Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong, condemned the law as a “comprehensive assault on the city’s autonomy.”  The law, which was passed unanimously by China’s National People’s Congress (NPC) in a largely rubber-stamping process during the Two Sessions last year, criminalizes any “acts of secession, subversion, terrorism, or collusion with foreign or external forces” with a penalty of up to life imprisonment . In effect, authorities now have a wide range of new powers to crack down on Hong Kong’s civil society.
As ambiguous as most legal provisions are in the Mainland, Article 38 of the law constitutes a particularly worrying prospect for not only Hong Kongers, but foreign nationals as well. Written in vague terms, Article 38 states that the national security law applies to any person “who is not a permanent resident of the Region,”  essentially asserting extraterritorial jurisdiction on citizens of other countries. Simply put, anyone on the planet could potentially violate this law and face prosecution when entering Hong Kong for actions that are deemed inappropriate by the Chinese government.
By refusing to consult with pro-democracy legislators in Hong Kong and entirely bypassing the local Legislative Council (Legco) in the drafting of the law, the Chinese government has in a sense abrogated the “one country, two systems” principle that Hong Kong has been allowed to operate under since 1997 and defaulted its own promises in the Sino-British Joint Declaration signed in 1984, which stipulates that the socialist system and socialist policies shall not be practised in Hong Kong and that Hong Kong’s previous capitalist system and life-style shall remain unchanged for 50 years .
Unsurprisingly, the law has drawn international reprehension and prompted many Hong Kongers to flee the city, fearing that the erosion of free speech, free assembly, and legal transparency would eventually lead to a whole host of consequences ranging from censorship to mass score-settling. Although China’s policy-making process is generally opaque, there exist various explanations as to why Beijing decided to usher in a ‘brave new world’ by promulgating the law in Hong Kong at the time, what the future implications are for the city, and how it will impact U.S.-China relations. In this article, I seek to understand China’s justification for imposing the Hong Kong national security law by analyzing the three main motives behind it’s implementation. In particular, I argue that the law was motivated by the need to restore order and stability to Hong Kong, the absence of global leadership amidst the coronavirus pandemic, and Xi Jinping’s political ambition to leave a lasting legacy on Hong Kong and Taiwan.
Restore Order and Eliminate Perceived Foreign Influence
Arguably, the national security law was Beijing’s primary means of ending Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement, which originated in 2019 as citywide protests broke out against the introduction of the extradition bill and police brutality. Tensions between protesters and authorities─namely the Hong Kong government under Chief Executive Carrie Lam, politicians in the pro-establishment (or pro-Beijing) camp, and the police force─escalated so dramatically that more and more Hong Kongers have expressed anger and frustration toward the government’s refusal to listen to the people and failure to respond adequately to the so-called “Five Demands” which includes full withdrawal of the extradition bill, the establishment of an independent commission of inquiry into police misconduct, the resignation of Lam, and universal suffrage for Legco and the chief executive elections . Upon the enactment of the law, social fissures have widened, while approval ratings of the local government and public opinions of the Chinese government have plummeted to a new low, with more people demanding the entire police force be disbanded as well as sporadic but growing calls for self-determination.
Throughout this time, Beijing has changed its communication strategy from initially trying to play down the crisis to characterizing the pro-democracy movement as a separatist movement, condemning the protesters for committing violence and vandalism while paying little attention to the demands for democractic reform and preservation for the rule of law. Across the border in the Mainland, China’s censorship has tightly controlled access of information and only permitted the circulation of pro-Beijing narratives, fueling the Mainland-Hong Kong divide and accusing the protests as illegitimate. In an effort to demonize the movement for audience in the Mainland, state-controlled news channels like CCTV and tabloids such as Global Times and People’s Daily often cherry picked contents portraying a city in chaos, streets in disarray, and black-clad mobs attacking innocent passersby while pixelating the words written on cardboards by protesters.
In the lead up to the Two Sessions, NPC Vice Chairman and top Chinese Communist Party official Wang Chen cited growing risks to China’s national security posed by “anti-China” and “external hostile forces” that “wanted to bring chaos to Hong Kong” by deliberately undermining social order and stability in the city . Sounds familiar? These words belong to Beijing’s catch-all explanation whenever there were protests inside China, particularly in Hong Kong. By accusing the so-called hostile Western powers, chiefly the United States, for instigating civil unrests and meddling in China’s internal affairs, the CCP has been remarkably effective in pushing the “century of humiliation” rhetoric─the idea that China’s misfortune from the 19th-20th centuries were mainly due to humiliating defeats and bullying from Western powers  ─to position itself as a victim and the West as the culprit, thereby deflecting responsibilities among both domestic and international audiences.
On the other hand, blaming external powers has been an important strategy for Beijing to provoke nationalism whenever the country faces political crises. As part of the “patriotic education” campaign introduced after the Tiananmen crackdown in 1989, for instance, the CCP presented itself as a vanguard against “hostile foreign forces” and called upon the public to unify behind the Party. Ten years later, in the aftermath of NATO’s bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, Beijing accused Washington of deliberately ordering the attack with the state television vehemently denouncing the bombing as a “barbarian act.”
In an exceptional gesture, the CCP tolerated protests outside American embassies, making some scholars believe that stoking nationalism and emphasizing Western antagonism against China simultaneously helped Beijing consolidate regime legitimacy and gain political leverage over talks of joining the WTO and other international organizations. Through examining the history of Chinese politics, from the Cultural Revolution to the Tiananmen crackdown, the CCP has always adopted a victim mentality to justify its actions as necessary for preserving social cohesion and stability, while weaponizing nationalism at times to engage in coercive diplomacy and divert attention from domestic political controversies.
Clearly, one of the factors that motivated Beijing to impose the national security law on Hong Kong was the passing of the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act (HKHRDA) by the U.S. Congress, a sign of direct U.S. “interference” in the semi-autonomous city. Although Beijing had repeatedly blamed agents of the CIA and the National Endowment for Democracy for inciting a color revolution in Hong Kong, financially supporting the movement, and even training protesters and equipping them with incendiary weapons like Molotov cocktails, the HKHRDA was substantial enough that Beijing had no other option besides responding in a similar if not stronger manner. This meant imposing a national security law on Hong Kong. Such a move inevitably worsened bilateral relations by adding uncertainties and complexities to a simmering diplomatic tit-for-tat between the two countries.
It is possible that Beijing wanted to impose the law much earlier, but instead had waited to seek an opportune moment to do so without facing too much backlash. By May 2020, the pro-democracy movement had dragged on for more than a year, destabilizing the local government and the economy. There was likely an overwhelming sense of urgency within the Politburo to prevent the unrest from prolonging and potentially spilling into the Mainland. Thus, the national security law became an imperative legal framework, a panacea, to restore peace and order to Hong Kong. At the end of the day, aside from treating the city as a money-making machine like its neighbor Macau, Beijing demands absolute loyalty and no political drama.
Opportunity Amidst Pandemic and Global Leadership Vacuum
Brookings scholars Richard Bush believes that a dynamic sequence of events over the years has caused all parties’ calculations to change, and eventually led to Beijing’s imposition of the national security law on Hong Kong. In addition to growing economic disparity and social inequality since the handover, Bush argues that a new generation of pro-democracy Hong Kongers coupled with increasing anti-establishment sentiments triggered Beijing’s neuralgias and served as an acute reminder of the existential challenges to China’s sovereignty and security. In particular, Bush notes that political elites in Beijing were unsettled by the Umbrella Movement in 2014, for the unprecedented scale and international attention it attracted, and have since scrutinized the Hong Kong issue from a different lens .
To be clear, the Hong Kong government had made considerable efforts to push for anti-subversion legislation on its own based on Article 23 of the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, but each time had encountered public opposition and obstruction from pro-democracy legislators. The largest demonstration against this piece of legislation took place in 2003 as hundreds of thousands of protesters demanded a cease-and-desist of the proposal. After lacking the necessary votes and losing crucial support of several prominent Legco members, the Tung Chee-hwa government ended the standoff by backing down on the proposal. In the absence of a loyal opposition and a propaganda apparatus to successfully manipulate the Hong Kong public, Beijing could no longer afford to show grace and patience in the face of the most recent protests, eventually deciding to take matters into its own hands by imposing the law directly on Hong Kong.
Although Beijing largely kept its drafting of the law a secret and paid little heed to public opinions in Hong Kong, the coronavirus outbreak presented Beijing a window of opportunity to enact the law without facing too much international backlash, particularly from the West, whose governments have mostly been besieged by an uncontrolled pandemic as well as growing social and political polarization. Under the Trump administration, from human rights abuses in Xinjiang to the conflicts in Nagorno-Karabakh, and from the protests in Belarus to war crimes committed in Nigeria, the U.S. was simply indifferent about playing policemen in other parts of the world.. Similarly, it can be argued that America’s allies, particularly in the Asia-Pacific, were unwilling to wield a significant amount of political capital to bargain with Beijing and ensure democracy in Hong Kong. For what it is worth, Beijing took full advantage of the growing partisan divide in U.S. domestic politics and the devastation caused by the pandemic, perceiving U.S. nonchalance in international politics as the golden hour to execute the law.
To be fair, just as every nation has a cross to bear in the wake of Covid, China is no exception. Months before the law was passed, the CCP was confronted with an epidemic that had led to questions of its legitimacy. At the onset of the outbreak, Chinese authorities were stumbling to censor references to coronavirus while addressing the outbreak. As news broke of the death of Dr. Li Wenliang, one of the whistleblowers who was muzzled for sounding the alarm about coronavirus in the early days of the pandemic, the Chinese social media was immediately flooded with an overwhelming outpouring of grief and anger. Public anxiety and dissatisfaction grew as the Chinese people learned more about the local governments of Wuhan and Hubei Province downplaying the gravity of human-to-human transmission in the early days, the shortage of personal protective equipment for medical workers, and the scandal of the Wuhan Red Cross in bungling the aid allocation. As the crisis unfolded, the situation became so grim that some in academia compared it to China’s ‘Chernobyl Moment’ . Even as media censorship was in full force suppressing criticisms online, the increase of public grievance and discontent posed a direct threat to the CCP and Xi Jinping, whose very legitimacy and capability were doubted.
Who would have expected that in just a matter of weeks that the CCP could effectively bring the outbreak under control at the expense of individual rights, purge the country of prominent critics, and reconsolidate party control with the help of an even more ultranationalist Chinese public. As soon as the central party stepped in, swift measures were implemented for more efficient coordination of resources, local officials were held responsible and sacked, technocratic adjustments were made, and the particular mode of messaging and emotional mobilization that the propaganda machine deploys in times of crisis intensified to stoke disaster nationalism . Once again, the tide had turned, and the CCP emerged, at least temporarily, as a victor.
By the time China convened its Party Congress, there was a general sense that the “trend of the times” had seemingly tilted in Beijing’s favor. The rest of the world is still in chaos and the global economy is in tatters. The U.S. is grappling with its own political realities and is shunned by some of its most stalwart allies. And there is a growing inability of liberal democracies to construct a coherent response to an increasingly assertive and aggressive China.
The pro-democracy movement had already lost some of its momentum when it became clear that large-scale protests were no longer realistic because of the pandemic and increasing totalitarian oppression . However, given the embarrassment of the 2019 district council election in Hong Kong where pro-democracy candidates won in a landslide, Beijing presumably sought to impose the law ahead of the Legco election in September 2020, so that liberal candidates running for the election could be disqualified under the new law. Since indiscriminate arrests were taking place on a daily basis long before the imposition of the national security law, what Beijing did could be viewed as providing a legal basis for normalizing ongoing social and institutional oppression and deterring future protests against the regime.
National Rejuvenation: Xi’s Legacy in Taiwan and Hong Kong
“Reunification is the historical trend and it is the right path … Taiwan’s independence is a reversal of history and dead-end road” -- Xi Jinping, 2019 New Year Speech .
Finally, it is worth conjecturing that the national security law was ultimately motivated by Xi Jinping’s political ambition with respect to regime consolidation and achieving national rejuvenation.
Take Beijing’s playbook on cross-strait relations for example. Some scholars have argued that Xi will inevitably put more pressure on Taiwan as he further consolidates his leadership, while others like political scientist Jing Huang believe that by including the reunification of Taiwan and mainland China on the top of his agenda, Xi is determined to take bold steps on the Taiwan issue and make it part of his political legacy .
Indeed, since taking office, Xi has made the realization of the “Chinese dream”─a broadly-defined set of national ethos and ideals for returning China to its former glory─the core doctrine of his leadership. A key component of his policy is oriented toward Chinese irredentism. In recent years, there has been a surge of propaganda in Chinese media reinforcing the narrative of reclaiming Taiwan, safeguarding China’s territorial integrity, and strengthening the cultural and political identities of the Chinese people. In a 2019 speech to the Taiwanese compatriots, Xi reiterated his call for the peaceful reunification based on a “one country, two systems” framework, while reserving the use of force and the option of taking “all necessary means” to seize and occupy the self-governing island.
The same pattern applies to Hong Kong. Having witnessed the Umbrella Movement in 2014, just one year after he took office, Xi Jinping likely perceived Hong Kong as a major, more pressing hurdle to his mega project of achieving national rejuvenation. In the eyes of Xi, Hong Kong is more than just an international economic hub. Mindful of the century of humiliation, the city is a stark reminder of the remnants of Britain’s colonial past and Western ideals in the region, and that it is a direct representation of Western tentacles on China’s doorsteps, which must be fundamentally removed. Therefore, it has become clear that Beijing is not satisfied with the physical return of Hong Kong and anticipates regaining the full approval and confidence of Hong Kongers (renxin huigui, literally “the return of people’s hearts”). However, in an absence of diplomatic wisdom, Xi has centered his strategy on institutionally reforming the political, judicial, and education systems, which inevitably backfired.
As Beijing flexes its muscles and advances its interests against the international community, the imposition of the national security law on Hong Kong and the escalation of pressure on Taiwan embody the practical application of Xi Jinping Thought on Diplomacy, which proclaims China as a Great Power reclaiming its rightful status in the world. As one lawyer argues, this is predicated upon the desire for shaping international relations with “Chinese characteristics,” exerting itself as a leadership role in international affairs, and for China’s foreign policy to safeguard its developmental interests with emphases on national sovereignty and security . Thus, in order to leave an everlasting legacy on the status of Hong Kong and Taiwan, Xi has challenged the existing international order, disregarded diplomatic norms, and abandoned international agreements.
Delving deeper into Xi’s obsession with power, it is also worth noting the possibility that restoring order and stability in Hong Kong might allow him to claim he has strengthened PRC control over Hong Kong ahead of the 100th anniversary of the CCP’s founding in 2021. As laid out in the Congressional report, the move may also have a significant impact on Xi’s image and legacy as he is expected to bid for a third term as CCP General Secretary in 2022. Much like Russia’s annexation of Crimea when Putin’s approval ratings were low, a similar brinkmanship over Taiwan and Hong Kong would not be surprising, especially when China’s economic performance no longer meets the expectation of the upper-middle class and urban population. This puts into question Xi’s capability as a leader and the CCP’s legitimacy as a ruling party. Even though Xi doesn’t need to worry about public approval as much as Putin, reclaiming Taiwan and taming Hong Kong could further consolidate his grip on power and silence critics and political opponents, all while heightening nationalism and regime legitimacy.
Future Implications and Impact on U.S.-China Relations
By fundamentally revising the conception and implementation of “one country, two systems,” the Hong Kong national security law has caused states to pause and reconsider their relationships with China and reassess the projection of China as an unintimidating power. Beijing has undoubtedly sounded the death knell of Hong Kong’s autonomy and civil society, but as unfortunate as the situation is, the CCP has also demonstrated just how insecure the regime is by imposing its draconian will on the people of Hong Kong.
Now that the CCP has revealed its true face, the Biden administration needs to be more courageous and creative in navigating the choppy waters of the U.S.-China relations, as the Hong Kong issue presents another layer of complexity to an already testy relationship. At the present stage, the U.S. should coordinate with key allies in Asia and Europe, primarily Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, France, and Germany, in following the UK and Canada in introducing an immigration package that offers a lifeboat to Hong Kong’s British National (Overseas) passport holders who wish to emigrate.
The goal is not only to foster a robust Hong Kong diaspora and a vibrant Cantonese-speaking community overseas, but continue to support the democracy movement, which is more likely to persist given its “leaderless” nature. Meanwhile, a vetting policy should be incorporated to carefully scrutinize the applicants and prevent pro-Beijing politicians, legislators, and law enforcement officials, who were either directly involved or responsible for the institutional repression, from taking advantage of the policy.
Going forward, one thing the Biden administration should not shy away from is trying to maintain its presence in Hong Kong with the help of American business corporations, consulting firms, and even missionaries. Even though the worsening of bilateral ties has made it increasingly difficult for America to exert a greater degree of influence in the city, Washington needs to recognize the value of Hong Kong’s middle class and youth, as well as the strategic importance of preserving and cultivating this people-to-people diplomacy, which will continue to be a key factor in the city’s future political development.
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