'The end': Australia's 'deep concern' as China passes new laws

Tom Flanagan
News Reporter

It was a move pro-democracy activists feared would be the death of Hong Kong’s autonomy, granted with the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ framework.

That was a system that last year came under serious threat 22 years after China resumed control of Hong Kong when it was handed over by the UK in 1997.

While a prolonged and sometimes ugly period of protesting from millions opposing an extradition bill lasted seven months in 2019, it took just six weeks after new national security laws were levied by the Communist Party of China for millions of Hong Kongers to realise their worst fears have now become a reality.

“In the eyes of many Hong Kong people, this means the end of the one country, two systems model,” Joseph Cheng Yu Shek, a retired Professor of political science at the City University of Hong Kong, told ABC News 24.

On June 30, the new national security laws targeting subversion, secession and terrorism were passed.

“The law will be compromised, the pro-democracy movement and the political opposition will find it difficult to function, to operate, and many people believe that they will live in fear.

“Hong Kong people are certainly very angry, very disappointed.”

Pro-democracy protesters shout slogans " Stop One Party Rolling" as they march toward the flag raising ceremony marking the anniversary of the Hong Kong handover to China on Wednesday. Source: AP

Australia critical of ‘troubling’ move

On Wednesday, Australia joined international condemnation of the passing of the law on Tuesday, with a statement from Foreign Minister Marise Payne.

“Australia joins many international partners in expressing our deep concern about Beijing’s imposition of a National Security Law on Hong Kong,” she said.

“This decision to impose the law undermines the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ framework.

Ms Payne said Australia is “troubled” by the decision, a city which she says Australia has a “substantial stake” in its success due to its commercial and expatriate presence.

“That this decision was made without the direct participation of Hong Kong’s people, legislature or judiciary is a further cause for concern.

Marise Payne released a statement on Wednesday critical of Beijing's move to implement the laws. Source: AAP

“The eyes of the world will remain on Hong Kong.”

Many Western governments view the move as an unprecedented assault on the finance hub's liberties and autonomy.

Wednesday marks the 23rd anniversary of its handover to China. Under the glare of the new national security laws where protests will be banned, the city's cherished freedoms are looking increasingly fragile.

Activists have called on people to defy a ban on protests and march through the city's main island on Wednesday afternoon.

But it is unclear whether Hong Kongers will heed that call given the risks posed by the new security law – which came into effect overnight – and increasingly aggressive police tactics towards even peaceful gatherings in recent months.

“I think most people will continue to struggle, will continue to show they are not willing to give up, but they will be careful to avoid the severe sanctions and penalties,” Mr Cheng said.

“But understandably various activities will be difficult to conduct.”

Democracy march shelved for first time

The July 1 anniversary has long been a polarising day in the semi-autonomous city.

Beijing loyalists celebrate Hong Kong's return to the Chinese motherland after a century and a half of what many considered humiliating colonial rule by Britain.

But democracy advocates have used the date to hold large protests as popular anger towards Beijing's rule swells.

During last year's huge pro-democracy demonstrations, the city's legislature was besieged and trashed by protesters.

Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam attended a flag-raising with mainland Chinese officials on Wednesday morning with thousands of police on standby and security barriers around the venue.

For the first time since the ceremony began 17 years ago, authorities have banned the annual July 1 democracy march, citing fears of unrest and the coronavirus, although local transmissions have ceased.

Hong Kong's Chief Executive Carrie Lam, center, makes a toast with guests following the flag-raising ceremony to mark the anniversary of the Hong Kong handover to China. Source: AP

Law breachers could face life imprisonment 

Ahead of the 1997 handover by Britain, authoritarian China guaranteed Hong Kong civil liberties – as well as judicial and legislative autonomy – for 50 years in a deal known as "One Country, Two Systems".

The formula helped cement the city's status as a world-class business hub, bolstered by an independent judiciary and political freedoms unseen on the mainland.

Critics have long accused Beijing of chipping away at that status, but they describe the security law as the most brazen move yet.

Passage of the legislation was speedy and opaque even by Beijing's standards.

The law was passed in just six weeks, skipping Hong Kong's fractious legislature, and the precise wording was kept secret from the city's 7.5 million inhabitants even as it came into effect.

The law was finally published on Tuesday night. It outlaws subversion, secession, terrorism and colluding with foreign forces to undermine national security with sentences up to life in prison.

The new suite of powers radically restructures the relationship between Beijing and Hong Kong, toppling the legal firewall that has existed between the city's judiciary and the mainland's party-controlled courts.

China will have jurisdiction over "serious" cases and its security agencies will also be able to operate publicly in the city for the first time, unbound by local laws as they carry out their duties.

The United States, Britain, the European Union and the United Nations rights watchdog have all voiced fears the law will be used to stifle criticism of Beijing, which wields similar legislation to crush dissent on the mainland.

But Beijing says the law will restore stability after a year of pro-democracy protests and will not end Hong Kong's freedoms.

Popular anger towards Beijing exploded last year during seven consecutive months of huge and increasingly violent pro-democracy protests.

Millions took to the streets while a smaller hard core of protesters frequently battled police in vicious confrontations that saw more than 9,000 arrested.

The protests were initially sparked by an eventually scrapped law allowing extraditions to the mainland.

But they morphed into a popular revolt against Beijing's rule after years of concerns that Hong Kong's freedoms were being eroded.

with AFP

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