Hong Kong eyes new security law after electing loyalist council

Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam stopped short of detailing a timetable for passing the legislation. PHOTO: REUTERS

HONG KONG (BLOOMBERG) - Hong Kong's leader Carrie Lam touted plans to revive a controversial security law that ignited a political firestorm two decades ago, after completing an election to install a new legislature filled with Beijing loyalists.

The pro-establishment council elected in a muted vote on Sunday (Dec 19) should present "new proposals" by June on how to enact security legislation, Mrs Lam told a news briefing on Monday after the results were announced.

While the former British colony recorded its lowest voter turnout - 30.2 per cent - as swathes of the public boycotted the electoral system recently revamped by Beijing, the result empowers Mrs Lam to pass once-difficult legislation unopposed.

A provision of Hong Kong's charter drafted before its return to Chinese rule in 1997 requires a law banning "foreign political organisations or bodies from conducting political activities", as well as, "treason, secession, sedition, subversion against the Central People's Government, or theft of state secrets".

Such legislation has been shelved since huge street protests in 2003.

Chinese authorities cited the failure to pass the Article 23 legislation as justification for their decision to impose a national security law on the city in June 2020.

While that measure prohibited subversion, secession, colluding with foreign forces and terrorist activities, it lacked language on treason, sedition and theft of state secrets.

"It is the constitutional responsibility of the SAR government," Mrs Lam said on Monday, referring to Hong Kong's status as a special administrative region.

"For a long time, we haven't done that."

Updated proposals were needed, Mrs Lam said, since the Internet had brought new security threats and the "overall situation" of Hong Kong had changed since the last effort to pass Article 23.

Mrs Lam, who has not said yet whether she will seek a second term when her current five-year stint expires in June, was slated on Monday to leave for Beijing to brief state leaders on Hong Kong's situation.

Purged opposition

She stopped short of detailing a timetable for passing the legislation, saying it was "not realistic" to expect lawmakers to approve such a measure before their upcoming session ends six months from now.

That said, the body has moved quickly on several major proposals in recent months with opposition members out of the chamber.

"Article 23 will likely be an extension of China's national security standards and ways of doing things to Hong Kong," said associate professor Kenneth Chan of Hong Kong Baptist University.

"Having purged the democracy movement and civil society, it will be very hard for citizens to get organised to voice their opinions or oppose Article 23."

On Monday, Mrs Lam said was she was "happy" with the election result, despite a government campaign to boost voting rates falling short.

Free public transport on Sunday saw the city's network flooded as citizens inundated leisure attractions such as Ocean Park and Disneyland, rather than ballot boxes.

The authorities arrested 10 people for inciting others to cast blank votes before the election. They also issued arrest warrants for at least five others on the same grounds as they tried to protect voter turnout.

Just 1.35 million people out of almost 4.5 million registered eligible voters cast their ballot.

In the professional groups that picked 30 candidates, turnout was not much higher, at 32.2 per cent.

The 1,448-member pro-Beijing committee that chooses 40 lawmakers saw a 98.5 per cent turnout."I'm satisfied with this election," Mrs Lam said at a regular press briefing on Monday, dismissing the low turnout. "Particularly to ensure patriots governing the city."

The government's earlier postponement of Sunday's vote due to Covid-19 restrictions prevented the opposition riding a growing wave of momentum at the ballot box.

The democracy camp won its greatest share of seats in the previous legislative vote and scored a landslide in the 2019 District Council elections.

During that delay, the central government shrunk the number of directly elected lawmakers to 20 and introduced the 40 seats picked by Beijing loyalists.

In May, the city's legislature approved a China-drafted plan to vet all candidates for respect for the Communist Party.

Both moves came in the wake of widespread government protests in 2019, and wiped the pro-democracy opposition politicians who had supported that unrest from the legislature.

Only one of the 90 lawmakers elected on Sunday was not a pro-establishment figure, with Mr Tik Chi-yuen in the social welfare constituency representing the moderate Third Side party.

"All LegCo members are now patriots who are devoted to the Basic Law and the Hong Kong government despite their backgrounds," Ms Starry Lee, head of the pro-Beijing party Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, said on Monday.

"Even between patriots, there will be different views on policies, ways to solve problems and how to advocate change in the government. I believe there will be various opinions during policy debate," she added.

Assistant professor Dongshu Liu, who specialises in Chinese politics at City University of Hong Kong, said if the opposition movement wanted to participate in future elections, it would be severely clipped.

"That is a bigger danger," he said. "The political divide will sooner or later be a problem. You can't suppress the unhappy people forever."

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