Hong Kong National-Security Law Scrutinized in House Hearing

A reporter falls down after being pepper-sprayed by police during a protest in Hong Kong on Wednesday. (AP Photo/Vincent Yu)

WASHINGTON (CN) — The House Foreign Affairs Committee on Wednesday heard from a range of experts on the Chinese Communist Party, as a national security law takes effect in Hong Kong that threatens the “one country, two systems” framework.

Critics voiced their concern over the law’s far-reaching effects when draft legislation was passed in May by a more than 2,800-member majority in the Chinese parliament. The law is a response to democratic demonstrations that dominated Hong Kong last year and are now in a resurgence, with protests engulfing the city Wednesday.

While full text of the law is not expected until August, the Chinese parliament gave final approval to the measure late Tuesday night and police have already made arrests under it.  

The law has 66 separate provisions and is said to be aimed at restricting secessionist and terrorist activities, along with curbing foreign intervention in Hong Kong’s affairs. The highest penalty for violating the national security law is life imprisonment.

Those charged under the law can be extradited and tried on the Chinese mainland. The law also criminalizes broad actions, like inciting hatred towards the government.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, briefly joined members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Wednesday and said they must continue to hold President Donald Trump accountable for inaction against Chinese human rights violations.

Lawmakers must consider economic penalties and visa limitations to show dissatisfaction with China’s new restrictive law, she said, and continue to “put the bright spotlight” on human rights abuse.

“The most horrible form of horror for someone who is fighting for democracy or is imprisoned is for the regime to say, ‘nobody cares, they’re not even paying attention to what you’re doing. Nobody remembers you, that you’re in prison, or why you’re even there,’” Pelosi said. “Well, we know why they’re there, something deep in the soul that’s in all of us. … Something that we have led the way on and that we cannot turn our backs on.”

Cheuk Yan Lee, general secretary of the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions, testified Wednesday that the national security law’s passage sounded the “death knell for the one country, two system party,” adding that the new law was a destruction of the rule of law in Hong Kong.

Chinese officials were so infuriated by protests last year that they are attempting to criminalize all resistive acts, he said. Also criminalized is the involvement of foreign entities, “through illegal means,” to promote hatred towards the central government, which Lee said is far from what Hong Kong demonstrators are trying to express through protests.

“With the disruption of ‘one country, two systems’ and rule of law and in its place, rule of fear, Hong Kong now has to learn to live and survive in a very suppressive environment and still, we must retain the will to resist,” he said.  

Nathan Law, a former Hong Kong legislative council member, testified many were caught off guard by a provision in the law that says those without permanent residence in Hong Kong can also be subject to national security penalties. Even speaking about the legislation to U.S. lawmakers or recommending foreign entities take negative actions against China could violate the law, he said.

“Under this legislation Beijing just passed 24 hours ago, anyone who would dare to speak up would likely face imprisonment once Beijing targeted you,” Law said. “So much is now lost in the city that I love — the freedom to tell the truth.”

Congressman Eliot Engel, a New York Democrat who chairs the committee, asked witnesses if any American or individual abroad should feel safe about visiting Hong Kong and whether the penalties could be applied to U.S. citizens.

Carole Petersen, a law professor at the University of Hawaii’s William S. Richardson School of Law, said that while she had lived in Hong Kong for 17 years, she didn’t “think anyone should feel particularly safe” now, especially those involved in campaigns for sanctions against the Chinese government.

“When you combine the provisions, articles 36 to 39 together with article 29, the definition of collusion with foreign forces, it creates an incredibly broad potential net for legal liability,” she said.

Congressman Scott Perry, a Pennsylvania Republican, asked what remedies were available to help combat the human rights violations perpetuated under the new national security law. In his view, the law is “the reason that you don’t make agreements with nations … that have no intent on maintain their side of the bargain, that are known liars.”

Petersen suggested more U.S. involvement in United Nations human rights councils and seeking the UN General Assembly’s help in getting an advisory opinion from the International Court of Justice. There’s nothing China could do to stop the assembly from seeking that input, she said.

“Even though advisory opinions are nonbinding they can be very influential,” Petersen said. “I think even the campaign to seek a vote in the General Assembly to seek that advisory opinion would put some pressure on the Chinese government to be a little more careful about living up to the letter of the Sino-British Joint Declaration.”

Perry seemed unconvinced applying these pressures would be effective.

“I got a news flash for everybody: public pressure and opinions, nonbinding, etcetera, have, as you can see, little effect on the Communist Chinese Party,” the congressman said. “That’s all just tilting at windmills in my opinion.”

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