The Policy Address of 2021 represents Hong Kong’s arrival at calmer waters. The special administrative region has gone through a very painful period of trial by fire under the extreme heat and fumes of 2019 and its aftermath.
Its political head, the chief executive, has come out at the other end of the trial liberated from previous sensitivities about difficult subjects relating to Beijing-Hong Kong relations, with Article 23 legislation being the poster-child example.
Taken as a whole — the Policy Address of 2021 and the chief executive’s question-and-answer sessions with the media — Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor shows she no longer has any hesitation to categorically state the need for a range of actions to be taken in Hong Kong to protect national security.
She said in one of the post-address question-and-answer sessions that former chief executives skirted around whether they would implement Article 23 legislation during their respective terms of office. She was clear that this task has to be faced head-on today.
It wasn’t that Mrs Lam was criticizing her predecessors. She was stating what was a fact in Hong Kong politics. Article 23 legislation was unpopular because it represented importing what some Hong Kong people felt were “mainland concepts” that they felt were alien to them. They feared Article 23 could take away their liberal way of life.
Taken as a whole — the Policy Address of 2021 and the chief executive’s question-and-answer sessions with the media — Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor shows she no longer has any hesitation to categorically state the need for a range of actions to be taken in Hong Kong to protect national security
Article 23 requires Hong Kong to legislate on its own to prohibit acts of treason, sedition, secession, subversion, theft of State secrets, having ties with foreign political organizations, and to prohibit foreign political bodies from conducting activities in Hong Kong.
Understandably, some people in Hong Kong worry that Article 23 will stop them from legitimate criticism of government policies or people in power.
The events of 2019 led to the passage of the National Security Law for Hong Kong, which has filled a part of the Article 23 requirements, but Hong Kong still has to fill the gaps, such as updating the law on treason, sedition and official secrets.
Now that Hong Kong has lived through the extended protests, riots and violence of 2019, which forced Beijing’s hand to pass the National Security Law in 2020, the need for why the drafters of the Basic Law included Article 23 has come into focus.
There is such a thing as national security, a concept seldom discussed in the past. Prior to 1997, “national security” was that of Britain —the colonial power — but after the transition, it became that of the People’s Republic of China.
China faces different security issues from Britain, and it is clear as day that some foreign powers want to deflate China’s rapid development. This is being explicitly reported in the international press on a daily basis.
China is often painted as an “authoritarian” power, although world events have shown that the so-called “liberal and democratic” powers are far from faultless. In fact, these polarizing descriptions are just convenient “them and us” labels belied by major turmoil around the world today.
After having gone through the disturbances of 2019, and looking at world affairs today, Hong Kong finds itself in a new political space where the limits of freedom have been defined through the lens of China’s security predicament.
There are limits to our freedom of expression and association on matters of national security. The chief executive is now able to openly call a spade a spade. Yes, there will be further measures impacting the training of civil servants, and educating young people about national security that will affect students in our schools, as well as over the vetting of social groups, the internet and media.
Some of the changes will create discomfort among some members of the public and bring many criticisms. The chief executive and key members of Hong Kong’s governing team have been steeled by the events of the past two years.
This change is potentially liberating for all government officials and politicians, who have little wriggle room in matters of national security. They can, however, ensure laws, rules and guidelines are as clear as possible and are fairly implemented.
It may even be liberating for those in opposition. Hong Kong can now have its own version of a “loyal” opposition. They can argue vigorously for alternative views and criticize policies and plans, but they cannot work toward toppling the existing constitutional order or call for the downfall of either the local or national system, and there is no room to work with external political forces to push for such change.
China’s predicament has forced it to adopt new national policies, such as “dual circulation”, which requires the strengthening of domestic activities to upgrade every aspect of the economy, as well as to invest in the future, in particular in innovation of all kinds that includes resource efficiency and zero carbon. After all, China may face greater difficulties in external markets, particularly in Western countries that aim to slow its development.
The Policy Address has massive plans to better connect Hong Kong to the national economy. For example, to develop the New Territories, a new Northern Metropolis will be created that both connects to Shenzhen — China’s Silicon Valley — and helps to bring about better planning for housing, job opportunities and environmental protection.
Calmer local politics gives Hong Kong people a chance to reflect on the difficulties of past years and to assess for themselves how to help this city move ahead, as the external environment is still choppy.
The author is chief development strategist of the Institute for the Environment, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, and a board member of the CDP (Carbon Disclosure Project) Worldwide, London.
The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.