Rule of law: Beijing style

On Sunday, Hong Kong authorities charged 47 of its citizens for violating the National Security Law — a Beijing measure unilaterally imposed on Hong Kong at the end of June this past year. The 47 were part of a group of pro-democracy activists who were initially arrested in January for their involvement in last July’s territory-wide, primary election designed to pick candidates who would run in the city council elections in September. The charge: conspiracy to commit subversion.

The law, whose content was kept
secret until its public release at 11pm (Hong Kong time) on the 30th of June — an
hour before the anniversary of the territory’s reversion from British rule to
Chinese rule — lists four principal crimes and various provisions for
enforcement. The four are: acts of secession, subversion, terrorism, and
collusion with foreign powers. Each can carry a life sentence if an individual
is found guilty. As for enforcement, cases can be tried in the mainland, as
opposed to Hong Kong, where the de facto Beijing-appointed chief executive of
Hong Kong can pick the judges to hear the cases at her or his discretion.
Beijing is the final judge of the law’s interpretation, and trials can be held
in secret at, again, the discretion of Hong Kong and Chinese authorities.

Chinese President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang cast their votes on the national security legislation for Hong Kong Special Administrative Region at the closing session of the National People’s Congress (NPC) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China May 28, 2020. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

This is a classic example of
the notion of the “rule of law” under an autocratic regime. Sure, there is law,
but its vague and sweeping terms, its potentially (and likely) arbitrary interpretation,
and faux due process are the hallmarks of such governments. I remember a
seminar on the rule of law for officials from former Warsaw Pact states just a
year or so after the collapse of the Soviet Union in which one bemused
ex-general said: “We know all about the rule of law; the gulags were filled
with lawbreakers.”

It’s no coincidence that the
National Security Law was promulgated when it was. Beijing knew well in advance
of Hong Kong democrats’ plans to select a slate of candidates for the Legislative
Council that, for the first time, would likely be able to exercise a veto over
any new efforts by Chinese President Xi and his Hong Kong allies to subvert
Hong Kong’s promised autonomy. But postponing the planned September election
under the excuse of the pandemic would not be sufficient. Xi and company also
had to uproot the leadership of the democratic movement itself. Putting in
place the law as late as they did was a trap for the primary’s proponents who at
that moment could not, as a practical political matter, call off the primary. Nor
could they accept the fact that their primary became considered “subversive” when
Hong Kong’s Basic Law still allowed for the election of seats within the
Legislative Council.

The benefit of true rule of law is a) the predictability that laws provide and b) the equal treatment under the law. For Beijing, however, it’s the capriciousness of the law’s enforcement that is its great value. Keeping individual life and liberty at risk is the surest way to keep a population from organizing to free itself. Hong Kong’s democrats will undoubtedly rest their innocence on what should be a fair reading of Hong Kong’s laws, including the Basic Law. And they should; if nothing else, it will be a lasting example of what the rule of law should be rather than what Beijing insists it is.