According to China’s sweeping new national security law, European citizens who argue in favor of self-determination for Hong Kong in their home countries could be imprisoned. Threatening the exercise of free speech by European citizens in Europe is totally unacceptable. Europe must act now, as we cannot wait until this law has actually been used against European citizens.
Editor’s note: this article is part of our ongoing debate on the impact of China’s new national security law on the freedom of expression in Hong Kong and everywhere in the world. Read previous articles in this series here.
Late at night on June 30th, Hong Kong’s national security law was revealed to the public after being enacted earlier that same day by China’s legislature(( An English translation of the text of the law can be found here and a good explainer can be found here)). By refusing to publish and discuss drafts, Beijing signaled its contempt for international opinion, for the people of Hong Kong, and even for Hong Kong’s government, who was humiliated by having to defend a law that it had been not allowed to see before its enactment.
As commentators have noticed, the new law has very little to do with China’s national security and much to do with suppressing democratic freedoms and stifling debate in Hong Kong. The four offenses it categorizes—secession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with foreign forces—are vaguely defined and subject to the interpretation of the Chinese regime. This is truly a liberticide law. Simply advocating for Hong Kong’s independence or even self-determination, for instance, can carry a penalty of life imprisonment. Hong Kong’s Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, has said that the political opposition could violate the law simply by campaigning with the aims of obtaining a majority and voting against the government!
Liberal democracies have a duty to respond and stand with the people of Hong Kong. We can certainly expect a more forceful reaction than that of the European Commission. To state that “the European Union is concerned that the law risks seriously undermining the high degree of autonomy of Hong Kong” when the new law destroys this autonomy is beyond diplomatic niceties.
One possibility would be for liberal democracies to show a greater commitment to the defense of Beijing’s next probable target, Taiwan. Europe could, for instance, signal its support by visibly reinforcing its presence in Taiwan, for instance by increasing the staffing of its European Economic and Trade Office.
There is another important concern with the so-called national security law, which directly impacts Europe’s fundamental interests: it infringes on the rights of foreigners in general and those of European citizens in particular. Article 38 of the law states that “This Law shall apply to offences under this Law committed against the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region from outside the Region by a person who is not a permanent resident of the Region.”
Yes, a European citizen who in her home country argues in favor of self-determination for Hong Kong (or Taiwan, or Tibet for that matter) falls afoul of the law and could be imprisoned. The same holds for a European parliamentarian who calls for sanctions against China. And by writing this column, so have I.
It is not enough for Beijing to muzzle European citizens—it also attempts to impose obligations on non-Chinese political organizations. According to Article 43 of the law, “When handling cases concerning offense endangering national security, … the department for safeguarding national security of the Police Force of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region may also take the following measures: … (5) requiring a political organisation of a foreign country or outside the mainland, Hong Kong or Macao… to provide information.”
This also applies to agents of such organizations. If members of a European political party or an NGO meet with a Hong Kong dissident, for instance, the party or its leaders could be held responsible if they did not provide information regarding the contents of the discussion.
Extraterritoriality is complex, and I certainly do not want to suggest that a government cannot, for instance, punish terrorists who are plotting an attack against it while in another country. But threatening the exercise of free speech by European citizens in Europe is totally unacceptable and, shockingly, the EU’s statement on the law does not even mention it.
Liberal democracies must act. Because they believe in freedom of information, they accept, as they should, a very asymmetric flow of information between China and the West, where Western media and social media platforms are banned by Beijing, while even Chinese instruments of state propaganda are allowed free reins on our televisions. But we cannot accept censorship of the views expressed in Europe and the rest of the world and cannot wait until this law has actually been used against a European citizen. Its existence is outrageous in and of itself. We cannot, like the legendary frog, wait for the water to boil.
To his credit, former Vice President Joe Biden has taken a courageous stand against this aspect of the law. According to Reuters, Biden said that if elected he would “prohibit US companies from abetting repression and supporting the Chinese Communist Party’s surveillance state” and would “impose swift economic sanctions” if Beijing “tries to silence US citizens, companies, and institutions for exercising their First Amendment rights.”
The European Union must also act. Asking for a repeal of the law will not be successful and has no bite, but it should be possible to make it costly for China and for Chinese officials to restrict the freedoms of European citizens. European and national laws should be amended to hold foreign individuals who conspire against the rights of European citizens personally responsible, whether they do so by passing laws of the same type as the national security law, or by participating in the enforcement of such laws, including the current one. Yes, there would be a degree of extraterritoriality, but those who participate actively in the trampling of the rights of European citizens must be held accountable.
Note: The views expressed in this column are the personal opinion of the author and in no way represent the official opinion of any institution to which he is affiliated