Impacts of National Security Law on Hong Kong’s Democratic Ideals

A transformed political landscape . . .

On July 1, John Lee Ka-chiu will become Hong Kong’s Chief Executive, the city’s top political office, after securing 99.2 per cent of the vote via an Election Committee dominated by Beijing loyalists. A hardliner, Lee oversaw last year’s mass arrests of opposition figures, including more than 50 who organized a pro-democracy primary election 10 days after Beijing imposed the NSL on the city. Flagship pro-democracy parties, including the Democratic Party, the Civic Party, and the League of Social Democrats, were subsequently absent from the Legislative Council elections in December. Lee will become the city’s sixth chief executive and is the first former security chief to take the top job.

Focus on national security eclipses the rule of law . . .

While Hong Kong’s Basic Law and the ‘one country, two systems’ framework were supposed to protect the city’s independent judiciary and provide Hongkongers with civil-rights protections like those in other common-law jurisdictions such as Canada, the passing of the NSL has had a profound impact on its criminal justice system. It allows Beijing increased power to interpret the NSL and have a say in the selection of judges who hear national security cases, ultimately influencing the outcomes of cases. Numerous convictions of activists involved in the 2019 protests show how the NSL can be used against political opponents. According to the World Justice Project, however, Hong Kong’s legal system remains robust, and in 2021 it received a score of 0.75 on a scale of 0 to 1, higher than the Asia Pacific region-wide average of 0.6.

What new chapter for Hong Kong?

Hong Kong’s relative independence and unique identity will likely continue to diminish under Lee’s rule. The policeman-turned-politician vowed to tackle “fake news” and promised more national security legislation, in addition to declaring a war against the “West’s propaganda over the erosion of rights and freedoms in the city.” While some experts argue that it is in China’s interest to preserve the rule of law in Hong Kong to retain its status as an international financial hub, it is undeniable that Hong Kong’s democracy, even if limited, has been slowly regressing since the handover, and even more so since the imposition of the NSL.