Police shoot pepper spray at protesters inside a train in Hong Kong, 2019 (Image: AP/Ring Yu)

Hong Kong has become officially as unsafe for Australians as mainland China after the country’s rubber stamp parliament signed off on sweeping security laws designed to catch anyone Beijing does not like. The laws came into effect at 3pm, June 30.

The new laws specifically state that foreigners either in Hong Kong or outside Hong Kong can break the laws — including via online comments. 

Rushed through in five weeks and cloaked in secrecy unusual even for China’s opaque ruling party, the laws were not given the traditional moment of “public consultation”, so by the time they were swiftly voted in at 9am on June 30 no one outside the National People’s Congress standing committee’s 162 people had seen the legislation.

A last-minute change saw the maximum penalty for people found guilty of breaching the laws for sedition, secession, terrorism and foreign influence soar from 10 years to life imprisonment. Provisions also include tighter control of the media and internet.

That is just one reason why exactly no one — apart from rubes who swallow the Chinese Communist Party’s propaganda lines — believes claims by Beijing and Hong Kong authorities that the new laws  will be used only “sparingly “and that provisions available to try anyone charged under them in the mainland’s opaque and brutal justice system — rather than Hong Kong’s common law system — will be “rare”.  

It’s a Beijing law and Beijing will interpret it as it sees fit.

It will also cover extradition, effectively obviating the need for Hong Kong’s Legislative Council — now officially a de facto puppet government of Beijing’s — to enact extradition laws that triggered the street protests that have roiled the city since last June.

The laws come a day ahead of the 23rd anniversary of the Hong Kong handover from the UK and a year after July 1 protests became violent, inexorably leading to the laws that were, in fact, signalled by the Communist Party at its annual plenum last October.

It’s game, set and championship to Beijing without the need for any messy vision on international television of tanks or army uniforms in Hong Kong’s streets.

There was always an inevitability to Beijing taking stronger control over Hong Kong, it’s just that no one had quite predicted that it would happen quite so soon with “one country, two systems” supposed to run until 2047.

To assert its control Beijing is setting up the necessary infrastructure of a secret police bureau etc, and — truth be told — begun rounding up undesirable democracy activists and independent-minded media proprietors, charging a dozen or so of them last month.

For evidence of what fate can befall hapless Australian citizens travelling to — or even through — Hong Kong and who catch the unwanted attention of Beijing’s security apparatus, consider the fate of Yang Henjun, the Chinese-Australian writer who has been locked up and tortured without legal representation or trial for 18 months.

Yang was nabbed during an (arguably ill-advised) trip to China in January 2019. He has been held longer than the 13 months or so which China’s legal system legally allows and diplomats are also banned from visiting. The “state security” nature of his detention means all bets are off.

“Since his detention in China over a year ago, the Australian government has repeatedly expressed its strong concern about the treatment of Dr Yang,” a spokesman for the Department of Foreign Affairs tells Crikey.

“Chinese authorities have not permitted Australian consular officials to undertake consular visits with Dr Yang since our last visit on 30 December 2019 due to COVID-19 control measures. In the absence of [these] … we have repeatedly requested to speak to Dr Yang by telephone. To date this hasn’t occurred.”

It is understood that DFAT  has repeatedly asked that at least Yang be able to write letters, but to date this hasn’t happened. DFAT said it continued to advocate for direct contact with Yang and was providing consular support to his family but this, surely, is cold comfort.

The Morrison government has added further fuel to its stoush with Beijing, slamming the laws. 

“Australia is troubled by the law’s implications for Hong Kong’s judicial independence, and on the rights and freedoms enjoyed by the people of Hong Kong, both of which underpin the city’s success,” Foreign Minister Marise Payne said. “The eyes of the world will remain on Hong Kong.”

Many businesses and business people had begun to feel the hot breath of Beijing on their necks in the years leading up to this watershed moment, many expats have left, and Australian businesses that were looking to expand in Hong Kong — such as the Commonwealth Bank — have pulled back. Some may remember the nasty experience of Crown Casino’s staff locked up after a knock at the door.

Still the markets barely blinked and the financial wheels, including those of Macquarie’s Asian headquarters, will continue to turn — at least for now.

For those remaining — and there are 100,000 Australians and as many as 6000 businesses in Hong Kong — it’s time to watch their Ps and Qs. The experiences of Australians like Matthew Ng, Charlotte Chou, Stern Hu, Yang and scores of others whose names we do not know attest to the pitfalls of crossing the CCP.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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