National security education: Raising consciousness and safeguarding the future

As Hong Kong marks National Security Education Day, on April 15, it should be remembered that national security is the first duty of the government. Without it, nothing is safe, and its role in safeguarding the city’s way of life and capitalist system is pivotal. When national security is deficient, the future is imperiled, and residents must appreciate the force of this message. 

In 2022, it was announced that the “one country, two systems” governing principle will endure after 2047, but this can only be guaranteed if national security is ensured. Indeed, this is the lesson to have emerged from the recent past, when some people sought to leave Hong Kong defenseless in the face of internal disruption and external dangers. Anti-China forces even opposed the very modest proposals to protect national security the government advanced in 2003, and they then screamed from the rooftops when steps were finally taken to protect the city in 2020. 

After 1997, due partly to the deficient educational policies of the British era, many people in Hong Kong knew very little about their mother country, its history or its achievements, and this had consequences. When, however, the Hong Kong government sought to rectify the situation in 2012, by proposing moral and national education in the schools, anti-China elements organized huge protests, and the proposals were withdrawn, with dire consequences. 

Although National Security Education Day provides an important focus each year on national security, it must be viewed in a broader context. Protecting national security requires dedicated efforts throughout the year at all levels of society. As was seen during the insurrection of 2019-20, there are people who fear China’s rise in global affairs and they will do anything they can to frustrate it, including wrecking Hong Kong

As Alexander Pope, the poet, once explained, “A little learning is a dangerous thing,” and many poorly educated and gullible young people fell headlong into the traps laid for them by the fanatics. This arose, firstly, in 2014, when the city’s streets were occupied, and, secondly, in 2019, when a full-scale insurrection was launched that threatened the very survival of the “one country, two systems” policy. 

Whereas, until recently, it was not uncommon for schoolchildren to be misled about their country’s past, the universities were infiltrated by those who wished China ill, while sections of the media fed their readers with foreign propaganda, corrupting the impressionable. Very little, however, was done to counter these nefarious activities or promote patriotic sentiments, and some people even flirted with separatist ideologies, meaning something had to be done. 

Every country has national security laws of one sort or another, but there were those in the West (led by the US-controlled Five Eyes intelligence alliance) who wanted Hong Kong to be the only part of China to have none. If, they reasoned, the city was defenseless, it would be easier for them to use it as a base for destabilizing China. They could, just as they did before 1997, pursue their espionage activities without letup or hindrance, recruit proxies to do their dirty work for them, and insinuate their agents into local institutions, including the body politic, the universities and the media. 

Their bluff, however, was well and truly called with the enactment of the National Security Law for Hong Kong (NSL), on June 30, 2020. Once they realized the game was up, they reacted furiously. With the US leading the charge, they sought to harm Hong Kong in various ways, whether by withdrawing trading benefits, ending criminal justice cooperation, or sanctioning officials. However, despite their multipronged assaults, Hong Kong has not only survived, but is now carving out an assured future for itself, both globally and nationally, including as part of southern China’s development program.

The NSL is not, as it could have been, retroactive, meaning it cannot be invoked against those who sought to destroy Hong Kong in 2019, or else colluded with US politicians to wreck its economy. It has, therefore, only been deployed against post-insurrection offenders, and, even then, it has been used with great restraint. On April 2, the authorities revealed that, in the NSL’s first 33 months, only 250 people had been arrested under its provisions or for offenses related to endangering national security (notably, sedition), with barely 30 having been convicted. These figures show that many of those who wanted to wreck the city have fled, or have realized the battle was lost, or have turned over a new leaf, and the NSL has worked wonders, which needs to be generally understood. 

Anybody convicted in a national security prosecution will, despite the rantings of the Sinophobes, have undergone a trial in which all the safeguards associated with the common law system of justice were provided. If guilt had been contested, there would have been a trial before an independent judge (or judges), the presumption of innocence would have applied, and there would have been a right of legal defense. The prosecution, moreover, would have had to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, with the suspect enjoying all the fair trial guarantees contained in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, including the right to challenge, give and call evidence.

When the NSL was introduced, it contained some novel provisions, and even legal experts were perplexed over their applicability. Over time, however, the courts have rationally construed its provisions, and on only one occasion was the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress invited to make an interpretation, concerning the admission of overseas lawyers (and, even then, it was left to Hong Kong to decide how best to handle the issue). 

The courts, as always, had risen to the challenge, just as they did when the Hong Kong Bill of Rights, which had wide constitutional ramifications, was enacted in 1991. They have, for example, explained the meaning of the NSL’s bail provision, the operation of non-jury trials, and the impact of mitigating factors on minimum sentences, and this has promoted clarity. In consequence, the NSL is being gradually de-mystified, becoming an accepted feature of the legal landscape, with everybody appreciating exactly where they stand, which is how it should be in a free society based on the common law.   

Although several organizations, including political parties, trade unions and newspapers, have shut up shop since the NSL was enacted, there is nothing sinister about this. Hong Kong had a very narrow escape in 2020, and anybody who contributed to the mayhem, whether by stoking tensions, whitewashing thuggery, or collaborating with hostile foreign powers, must face accountability. After all, Hong Kong is an integral part of China, and those who abused its freedoms by trying to harm the country must appreciate the era of lawlessness is over, which is where patriotic education comes in. 

Thus, the NSL itself requires Hong Kong to “promote national security education in schools and universities and through social organizations, the media, the internet and other means”, and the purpose of this is to “raise awareness of Hong Kong residents of national security and of the obligation to abide by the law” (Article 10). 

In 2015, the NPCSC designated April 15 as National Security Education Day, and this is the third time the event will be held in Hong Kong. This year’s activities will be multidepartmental, and given that there is a shared responsibility throughout the community, the chief executive, John Lee Ka-chiu, has expressed the hope that “residents from all walks of life will support and vehemently engage in the series of activities on April 15.” 

Although every effort is being made to enlighten youngsters in the city’s 593 primary schools, the government also seeks to involve residents from all 18 districts, making this the first citywide national security promotional initiative. Whereas 60,000 thematic books will be distributed in the schools, animations, television programs and exhibitions will be conducted throughout the city to attract residents. Senior officials will host seminars, and five disciplined services will organize open days for the public. 

Although National Security Education Day provides an important focus each year on national security, it must be viewed in a broader context. Protecting national security requires dedicated efforts throughout the year at all levels of society. As was seen during the insurrection of 2019-20, there are people who fear China’s rise in global affairs and they will do anything they can to frustrate it, including wrecking Hong Kong. 

Eternal vigilance, therefore, is required of people of all ages. China’s adversaries are forever looking for gaps in the city’s defensive armor, and nobody can afford to let their guard down. Through comprehensive education and patriotic awareness, residents must protect their city and defend their country, not least because this will provide a brighter future for everybody who calls Hong Kong home. 

The author is a senior counsel and law professor, and was previously the director of public prosecutions of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. 

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.