China’s new national security legislation went into effect in Hong Kong late on June 30, giving Beijing new tools to control public discourse in the city, eliminating freedom of speech, mandating digital surveillance, and granting China extraterritorial powers to enforce the new law. In response, the United States has revoked Hong Kong’ special economic status and joined other democracies in condemning the law. Yet, a number of other countries have voiced their support for the legislation. By building a coalition of support for the new national security law, Beijing is not only tightening its grip on Hong Kong, but also trying to delegitimize critiques of China’s own domestic policies or system of government and strengthen global opposition to democratic values and the notion of universal human rights.

Supporters of the government in Beijing, carrying the flag of China, march in Hong Kong after new national security law goes into effect. June 30, 2020. (Lam Yik Fei/The New York Times)
Supporters of the government in Beijing, carrying the flag of China, march in Hong Kong after new national security law goes into effect. June 30, 2020. (Lam Yik Fei/The New York Times)

The law, which comes after more than a year of frequent mass protests against Beijing’s growing control, criminalizes acts of separatism, subversion, terrorism, or collusion with foreign countries. Anyone who violates the law anywhere in the world may be subject to harsh penalties, including life in prison. Over just two weeks, the law has already led to the arrests of demonstrators, intimidation of voters, dissolution of pro-democracy groups, and increased censorship in Hong Kong’s schools and universities. Beijing has opened a new security office in the city and Chinese leaders will determine how the law is implemented, effectively nullifying Hong Kong’s justice system. In short, “one country, two systems” is over.

Worrying Levels of Support for China’s Approach

The global response to the Hong Kong law reflects a broader trend with respect to conversations about human rights within the United Nations. Over the last two years, two blocs have emerged: one, made up largely of democratic states, that condemns China’s policies in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, and another, largely made up of autocratic states, that supports China’s behavior and defends Beijing’s right to sovereignty without criticism within its own borders. The trend has emerged even as the United States had disengaged from multilateral forums like the U.N. Human Rights Council, which it exited in 2018, leaving an open field for China to pursue aggressive campaigns to change human rights norms.

On June 30, the United Kingdom led a group of 27 countries in the U.N. Human Rights Council criticizing the new law. In response, Cuba introduced a joint statement on behalf of 53 countries backing the legislation, and Beijing’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced a few days later that more than 70 countries had offered support.

Just four days earlier, 50 U.N. independent experts had issued a joint statement calling for greater scrutiny of China’s repressive tactics in Hong Kong, Tibet, and Xinjiang. The statement included a recommendation for the U.N. Human Rights Council to consider new mechanisms to monitor the human rights situation in China, such as by appointing a special rapporteur. But again, other states came to China’s defense, as Belarus introduced a joint statement on behalf of 46 countries supporting China’s policies. The latter group praised China for its transparency on human rights in Xinjiang, and stated its “firm opposition to the practice of politicization of human rights issues and double standards.”

And last summer, a group of 22 countries sent a letter to the president of the U.N. Human Rights Council and Office of the U.N. High Commissioner of Human Rights protesting China’s policies of “arbitrary detention” and “widespread surveillance and restrictions” in Xinjiang. Fifty countries, largely autocracies, later signed a competing letter defending China’s “remarkable achievements in the field of human rights.” China’s leaders have long held the view that states should not be “named and shamed” for practices that do not support a Western view of human rights. Instead, Beijing argues, the international community should recognize the right of individual states to choose their own governance model and approach to human rights. Within the United Nations, China has been working with the “Like Minded Group” to build broader support for those views. Beijing is also seeking support in the Human Rights Council for a resolution on “mutually beneficial cooperation” that, echoing Chinese Communist Party rhetoric, seeks to reframe international human rights law as a matter of state-to-state relations and prioritize state sovereignty in its application.

Why Other Countries Support China’s Hong Kong Law

Some countries may support the new national security legislation as part of an effort to strengthen their political relationship with Beijing. For others, supporting this legislation may give their leaders more room to implement similar laws at home. (Of the countries supporting China’s new legislation, Freedom House deems more than half of them to be “not free.”)

These leaders recognize that supporting China’s new legislation further weakens the notion of universal human rights and undermines the assertion that democratic systems are preferable to autocratic systems. By legitimizing Beijing’s use of policies that limit political rights and civil liberties, states thus lessen the expectation that they must conform to democratic ideals. At the same time, they reinforce notions of sovereignty and support Beijing’s view that human rights policies are internal affairs with which other countries should not interfere.

Finally, countries speaking out in support of the legislation echo Beijing’s position that this law is an internal Chinese matter. Beijing hopes that the more countries speak out in support of China asserting sovereignty over Hong Kong, the more others will be deterred from challenging its policies toward not only Hong Kong but also Taiwan, Tibet, Xinjiang, and the South China Sea. 

Why it Matters for the United States

The new law indirectly targets U.S. citizens, giving the Chinese Communist Party broad powers to prosecute foreigners who violate the law from anywhere in the world and extradite them from Hong Kong to face trial in China under charges of dissent. Accordingly, the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights warned that the law “may lead to discriminatory or arbitrary interpretation and enforcement of the law, which could undermine human rights protection.”

The national security law is also forcing many U.S. businesses, especially tech companies, to rethink how they operate in Hong Kong. Hong Kong’s internet has long avoided the same level of government censorship as the mainland, where sites owned by U.S. internet giants Facebook, Google, and Twitter are blocked. Last week those three companies—along with Microsoft and Zoom—said they will stop honoring government data requests from Hong Kong, at least until after completing a review of the human rights implications of the law.  

Other U.S. companies will also have to reexamine their operations there in light of the U.S. revocation of the city’s special economic privileges, which puts Hong Kong’s status as a financial center and trade hub in jeopardy. President Trump on Tuesday signed an executive order ending special trading privileges for Hong Kong and a bill to penalize banks doing business with Chinese officials who implement the national security law. 

More broadly, the national security law makes it more difficult for the United States to galvanize international support around values of human rights, rule of law, and freedom of speech. These norms and values were once a central component of U.S.-led multilateralism and remain enshrined in the U.N. Charter. But an opposing bloc is now emerging to remake the international system more favorable to authoritarian states. The U.S. Department of State has announced plans to promote human rights through its new Commission on Unalienable Rights, but Chinese officials continue to accuse the United States of interfering in China’s internal affairs under the guise of human rights.

The global implications of this new law are not yet clear, but in the immediate term, the lives of Hong Kong residents have been turned upside down. Countries around the world are revisiting their immigration policies in efforts to help Hong Kong residents who are fleeing the city and seeking refuge abroad. And as states increasingly find themselves separated into two blocs—one supporting China’s new law and the other opposing it—there’s concern that Hong Kong could be a flash point for a broader, global struggle over human rights.

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