Published: 19:10, March 22, 2024 | Updated: 09:14, March 25, 2024
Article 23 legislation: Debunking fearmongering myths
By Andrew KP Leung

After a long and troubled hiatus of over 26 years, the constitutional loophole in “one country, two systems” was finally plugged on March 19, when the Safeguarding National Security Ordinance (the Ordinance) was passed by Hong Kong’s legislature. This was the outcome of multiple marathon sessions examining the 181-clause legislative bill clause by clause, raising some 1,000 questions and 91 amendments. An earlier 110-page public consultation paper, released on Jan 30, attracted 13,147 submissions, of which 98.6 percent supported the legislative proposals.

Amid continuous fearmongering by Western media and politicians, the legislative process was accelerated with many legislators cutting short their attendance at the two sessions in Beijing.. 

Long overdue, the smooth, historic enactment of this critical constitutional safeguard reminds me of Tang Dynasty (618-907) poet Li Bai’s famous poem — Early Departure From Baidi City:

At daybreak I left Baidi, admidst clouds aglow,

A thousand leagues to Jiangling, takes just a day to go.

Oblivious of incessant baboon cries, on banks both left and right,

I’ve sailed past myriad cliff tops, flanking my skiff below. (Adapted from original translation) 

However, literature aside, at a recent morning coffee event on gender equality organized by a foreign chamber of commerce, I was a little disturbed by some bloated sentiments, albeit mild and isolated, suggesting that certain civil rights activities may further dwindle because of the combined “chilling effects” of the National Security Law for Hong Kong and the Article 23 legislation.

To clear the air, a number of popular yet serious misunderstandings or misrepresentations must be debunked.

First, comparing similar national security legislations, the passage of the Article 23 bill was not too hurried, and its punishments not too harsh. In response to the Sept 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the US’ Patriot Act was passed by both chambers of Congress in two days after being introduced.

Its penalty for either treason or espionage is death, compared to life imprisonment and 20 years’ imprisonment respectively under the Ordinance.

Second, the Ordinance is not designed to stifle dissent or curb freedom of speech, let alone normal diplomatic, academic and social exchanges. As Chief Executive John Lee Ka-chiu highlighted in his Legislative Council address on March 19, freedoms of speech, the press, publication, association, assembly, procession and demonstration are fully protected under the Basic Law, which incorporates the United Nations’ International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Hong Kong’s highly respected independent judiciary, whose Court of Final Appeal includes eminent foreign judges, will guard these freedoms jealously.

As a cosmopolitan city where the West regularly rubs shoulders with the East, Hong Kong embraces numerous dissenting views and diverse dispositions in its institutions and social fabric. Witness its newspapers, TV channels, university seminars, diplomatic receptions, business and social events or meetings where opinions, information and ideas flow freely. There is no reason why the Ordinance should be allowed to degrade these healthy exchanges that keep Hong Kong shining as Asia’s World City.

Third, the Ordinance will not scare away investment and business. It is instructive that on March 20, the day following the passing of the Article 23 bill, the Office for Attracting Strategic Enterprises welcomed a batch of 25 strategic enterprises to set up or expand their businesses in Hong Kong. They come from industries that include life and health technology, artificial intelligence and data science, fintech, advanced manufacturing, and new energy. Six of them are from the US, while the rest are from the Chinese mainland. These enterprises, totaling 50 including the previous batch, are expected to bring some HK$40 billion ($5.1 billion) in investments and 13,000 jobs to Hong Kong over the next few years.

Similarly, according to a South China Morning Post report of Dec 15, Hong Kong is home to more of the world’s top 500 family enterprises than any other financial hub in the Asia-Pacific region. According to a Bloomberg report of March 18, a $500 million new family office belonging to a member of the Dubai royal family has recently been established in Hong Kong.

As a world financial center, Hong Kong is second only to Switzerland as a global offshore wealth management location. Hong Kong remains ahead of New York as the top city for the ultrarich, with 12,615 ultra-high-net-worth individuals compared with New York’s 11,845. These family businesses and wealthy individuals are unlikely to be paranoiac about the Ordinance.

Fourth, the Ordinance will not destroy Hong Kong’s democratic development and its long-term prosperity. As Hong Kong is not a sovereign entity, and never will be, the common Western rhetoric of fighting for democracy as if Hong Kong were an independent country is playing fast and loose with the truth, belying the true intent of “one country, two systems”.

Even though not provided for under the Sino-British Joint Declaration, a universal suffrage package (one person, one vote) was offered for the 2017 chief executive election, subject to certain stipulations under Article 45 of the Basic Law, a constitutional document on Hong Kong’s governance. However, the package was flatly rejected during the socially disruptive “Umbrella Movement” or “Occupy Central”. Doubling down, the subsequent “black-clad” riots triggered by an ill-fated extradition bill colluded with external forces to subvert Hong Kong’s constitutional status as a special administrative region of China, in the absence of Article 23 legislation safeguards.

With the enactment of the Article 23 legislation, Hong Kong’s status under “one country, two systems” is restored to its proper footing. Universal suffrage “in accordance with the principle of gradual and orderly process” remains on the cards under Article 45.

Indeed, with the Article 23 legislation in place, Beijing has been sending unequivocal signals that “one country, two systems” will endure beyond 2047 (the limit of the original concept of “50 years unchanged”), perhaps indefinitely, thanks to Hong Kong’s unique long-term strategic role of deepening the motherland’s connection to the world, including the part it plays in the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area and the Belt and Road Initiative.

In the final analysis, the Article 23 legislation is there primarily as a national security safeguard, a warning to hostile forces and ballast for Hong Kong’s stability. Legitimate businesses, entities and individuals should take comfort in its protection rather than become paranoiac with nonexistent threats.

Nevertheless, a sustained public education campaign with professional guidelines would help to dispel ungrounded fears or anxieties, especially for people like journalists, lawyers, senior officials, legislators, academics and opinion-formers who may have to deal with sensitive topics or foreign representatives.

In any case, all the fear-mongering and unsubstantiated anxieties will die down when Hong Kong continues to thrive as a free, open, inclusive and cosmopolitan Pearl of the Orient. Over time, the best proof of the pudding is in the eating.

The author is an international independent China strategist, and was previously the director-general of social welfare and Hong Kong’s official chief representative for the United Kingdom, Eastern Europe, Russia, Norway, and Switzerland.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.