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China inflicts self-censorship


WORLD Radio - China inflicts self-censorship

A new security law further erodes Hong Kong’s civil society

John Lee, Hong Kong's chief executive, following the passing of Basic Law Article 23 in Hong Kong Getty Images / Chan Long Hei / Bloomberg

MYRNA BROWN, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It: Hong Kong takes another step towards Beijing.

On Tuesday, lawmakers in Hong Kong passed a law they claim will protect the island state from espionage and “external interference.”

MARY REICHARD, HOST: But dissidents abroad say this will only further erode freedoms of people living there.

Joining us now to talk about it is Dean Cheng. He’s a senior advisor to the China program of the U.S. Institute of Peace.

BROWN: Dean, good morning.

DEAN CHENG: Good morning.

BROWN: Well let’s start with some background. Why has Hong Kong been historically distinct from mainland China?

CHENG: Well, Hong Kong was detached from China in the wake of the first Opium War in the mid 1800s. This was a war fought by Great Britain to basically force China to accept the sale of British imperial opium in that country. China fought, China lost, and Hong Kong was literally part of the spoils of war. So basically, Hong Kong was a British colony until 1997, when under a negotiated agreement, including the UK-China Joint Declaration, Hong Kong was supposed to spend about 50 years from 1997 on as a special administrative region. It would maintain its own laws, it would maintain its own courts, freedom of the press was guaranteed. The one thing was that it was part of China, certainly for the purposes of national defense, certain aspects of law enforcement, etc. What we have seen is a steady erosion of Hong Kong's uniqueness, as it has been brought, essentially, in line with policies of the People's Republic of China, with the attitudes towards individual liberties and freedom that mark the PRC.

BROWN: Lawmakers in Hong Kong first tried passing a national security law back in 2003, but it faced significant opposition. What would that law have done?

CHENG: What that law would have done, and which it did eventually do in 2020 when it was passed, it would have really restricted, and we have seen since 2020 that actual restriction, on the rights to protest, the rights of the press to cover things broadly. Basically, if we look at the People's Republic of China, and the role of the Chinese Communist Party, what you see is an effort to eliminate all aspects of civil society. What is civil society? Civil society is that broad network of organizations, relationships, etc, that exists outside of government. And the CCP's attitude is no, there is nothing outside the control, the surveillance of the party. Under the One Country, Two Systems rule, the people of Hong Kong wanted to preserve the right to civil society. What we are seeing here with the National Security Law, as proposed in 2003, and is subsequently passed in 2020, was, “No, civil society will be subordinated to the state, the state has the right and authority to start coming in and dominating and controlling all aspects of behavior.”

BROWN: So wrapping up here, we have this new law that goes into effect on Saturday…how does it expand on the 2020 law?

CHENG: So under this Article 23, there are now 39 new "national security crimes." This includes what are very vague things like theft of state secrets, unlawful acquisition of information, possession of state secrets. It also terms any interaction with external forces—which again, is left very vague. Is working for Procter and Gamble, is providing information to Bain or to Deloitte working with external forces? All of this is adding up to a very, very dangerous environment for anyone who interacts with the outside. And finally, the law further notes how much these new rules and restrictions have extraterritorial effect. So if you are doing this in London, if you're doing this in Frankfurt, or New York, this law says, “Ah, but you're doing it aimed at Hong Kong, aimed at Hong Kong businesses, where people, if you now have passed through Hong Kong, we could arrest you.” That's huge, because what it's basically saying is, this law has a global effect. And what it really, really, really is trying to do at the heart of things, is to inflict self-censorship. Because the Chinese are smart enough to recognize it takes too many people and too much effort to constantly check every action, every document, every word. If you will do it, I don't have to. If you will stay far away from violating this incredibly vague set of laws, then in that case, you're already limiting your interaction, providing information, doing all of that, whether it's to Procter and Gamble or the CIA. And that's great from Beijing's perspective.

BROWN: Dean Cheng is a senior advisor to the China program at the U.S. Institute of Peace. He was previously at the Heritage Foundation. Dean, thanks for joining us!

CHENG: Thank you for having me.

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