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‘The end of the Hong Kong the world knew’

The laws imposed by Beijing are broader than the extradition bill that triggered city-wide protests last year. China has brought key parts of its judicial system to Hong Kong, instead of extraditing the accused to China.

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Despite not being publicly released, statements made by officials since Beijing’s National People’s Congress in May reveal the new laws will establish mainland national security agencies in Hong Kong for the first time and criminalise acts of secession, subversion and collusion with foreign powers. They are also expected to give the Hong Kong government the power to appoint judges to hear national security cases.

Because of COVID-19, fatigue and the shutdown of key transport links, large pro-democracy protests against the new laws have yet to materialise. Now they may not be able to.

But the vote, which was held on the last day of a three-day meeting of the standing committee, is likely to trigger a fresh wave of domestic and international unrest over the future of Hong Kong.

The US Department of Commerce suspended export licence exceptions, defence exports and commercial and military technology sharing arrangements with the global financial hub on Tuesday morning.

“We urge Beijing to immediately reverse course and fulfil the promises it has made to the people of Hong Kong and the world,” said US Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross.

Australia, battered by repeated diplomatic stoushes with Beijing over the coronavirus, continues to express its concerns. It is unlikely to establish safe-haven visas for highly skilled migrants from Hong Kong without substantial diplomatic cover from its allies including Britain, Canada, the US and New Zealand.

Beijing argues the laws reflect the actions of other countries taken around the world to protect their population from risks to national security. There is some truth in this. But few other countries have such a substantial judicial system driven so overtly by political ends, where charges, trials and sentences are often delivered in secret.

Hong Kong, the Pearl River outpost that morphed from opium entrepôt to banking mecca within a century, now faces a reckoning. Its transformation has largely been driven by its shift to an economy dominated by service industries and injections of foreign capital. In other words, people.

Hong Kong protest leader Joshua Wong.

Hong Kong protest leader Joshua Wong. Credit:Bloomberg/File

Now, with the passage of the legislation, there will be business executives in Hong Kong’s bars wondering if they want to take the risk of running afoul of China’s opaque judicial system. Just ask Canadian businessmen Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, who have spent more than 550 days in a Chinese jail. They face 10 years in prison after being charged with espionage in June.

There is a counterargument. Foreign direct investment is re-bounding in China, the world’s largest consumer market. It grew by 4.2 per cent in May and 8.6 per cent in April. If the risks of doing business in Hong Kong are no greater than in Shanghai, foreign firms may still judge it to be a risk worth taking.

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