Why is Hong Kong still happening

China expert on the new Hong Kong law"This is the end of 'one country, two systems'"

The so-called security law has come into force in Hong Kong. The Chinese central government in Beijing issued it for the former British crown colony. It enables harsh penalties against anything that the government classifies as subversive, separatist, terrorist or conspiracy with foreign forces. In the worst case, they face life imprisonment. The first arrests have already been made during demonstrations - the democracy movement in Hong Kong is now under immense pressure.

(imago-images / Keith Tsuji) End of press freedom in Hong Kong
Critics see the controversial law as endangering civil liberties in Hong Kong. Reporters Without Borders warns of restrictions on the freedom of the press.

Mareike Ohlberg, Senior Fellow in the Asia program of the German Marshall Fund, explains on Deutschlandfunk that although the democracy movement in Hong Kong was never particularly strong, there was always the rule of law and the courts were able to work independently. This is now seriously endangered by the new law.

Ann-Kathrin Büüsker: One country, two systems - that was always the credo with a view to Hong Kong. Are we just now seeing the final end of Hong Kong's special status?

Mareike Ohlberg: I think it's right. A lot of people say yes, this is the end of "one country, two systems". I think this is justified, and above all because with this law, the National Security Committee that is being set up in Hong Kong is creating a kind of parallel government that listens completely to the mainland, even more than that Hong Kong government. And the problem is also: Until now, Hong Kong actually had the rule of law. When it comes to democracy, Hong Kong has never come very far. There were never any correct, completely free elections in that sense, but you had the rule of law and thus legal security, and that is completely overridden by this law and thus a huge adjustment to the mainland is just taking place.

"Complete lack of rule of law"

Büüsker: Because the security rules that are made in Beijing now apply and Hong Kong simply no longer has any independence in this regard?

Ohlberg: There is simply no longer any possibility for civil society to defend itself appropriately against, for example, new laws that may come now, against new proposals that are already addressed in the National Security Act and against which were protested earlier, for example patriotic education in schools, against which there was a lot of protest in the past. In contrast, civil society can no longer de facto organize itself at all.

And it is indeed the case that this complete lack of the rule of law, that the law is used to deter and that it can, in principle, be used against anyone, because ultimately it is carried out by the mainland and it is vaguely defined that one quasi has something in hand against everyone at all times. The main attraction is in principle: If the rule of law is lacking, you are constantly in the situation that you never know for sure whether you are breaking the law or not.

(dpa / AP Photo / Vincent Yu) China's stance on Hong Kong: "A cheek towards the international community"
The Chinese government's security law for Hong Kong undermines the city's contractually guaranteed special status, comments Steffen Wurzel.

Büüsker: But Hong Kong still has a government. You have just viewed them with a bit of skepticism. Everything about Prime Minister Carrie Lam is now just a puppet?

Ohlberg: It's like this: The Hong Kong government wasn't terribly independent before either. The Hong Kong government has always been heavily dependent on the mainland. What you at least had, however, were still functioning courts and a functioning constitutional state. The government itself had previously acted on behalf of Beijing. But the strongest interventions could still be prevented through the courts and that is practically no longer the case. The possibility now no longer exists, because in case of doubt the mainland can always intervene via this new committee and take over cases and then, if necessary, can unsubscribe to the mainland and have people delivered there.

Büüsker: In other words, from your point of view, this is probably the end of the democracy movement?

Ohlberg: A lot can still happen, but at the moment I don't see the possibility of how the democracy movement can continue to organize itself under the current circumstances, how it can continue to form and how it can continue to make its demands.

"Intimidating people a lot"

Büüsker: With a view to the protests of the past few years, we have speculated about it from time to time or even feared that China might call in the military to brutally suppress protests. That has now been saved and has simply taken legal, political action against the democracy movement? Can you put it so pointedly?

Ohlberg: Some observers have called it the legal equivalent of the Tian‘amnen crackdown. It is of course different whether you roll up with tanks somewhere, but the effect, the intended effect, is exactly the same. It is actually hoped that these extremely harsh punishments will intimidate most people so much that they no longer dare to speak up. The few who still do go to jail. And then you can introduce your entire policy as you want, with patriotic upbringing, as you did in mainland China in the 1990s after the democracy movement there ended. I do believe the mainland Chinese government is hoping for a similar momentum from this law.

"Asylum for people from Hong Kong in Germany"

Büüsker: The US now wants to ease asylum rules for people from Hong Kong. Taiwan is already thinking about it. From Germany there are already votes from the SPD. Foreign politician Nils Schmid is calling for this. Do you think it is a good idea to make asylum easier for people from Hong Kong in Germany?

Ohlberg: In any case. It is incredibly important that actually all countries that somehow have the opportunity to now offer people from Hong Kong simplified immigration procedures. In the end, that's the least we can do. Not all Hong Kong residents will notice it. Of course, an incredible number of Hong Kong residents are still attached to their homeland. But it is important for those who are now being persecuted under this law or who are at risk of being persecuted by this law, or simply for people who do not want to live in a country or in a city where the rule of law no longer exists to give them opportunities to leave their home and build a new life.

Büüsker: But is it a bit of an admission, otherwise we can't help you on site, that's why we're opening our doors for you?

Ohlberg: Certainly! The problem is: It was announced extremely spontaneously. Nobody knew this was coming - at the end of May, when it was announced that this new law would be introduced. Not even the Hong Kong government was informed beforehand. The Hong Kong government also did not see the text until the text was officially announced by the Chinese authorities.

In the meantime, this month could have been used more effectively to actually say that if you do that, then we will no longer recognize one country, two systems. That means that we are dissolving all contracts that we have separately with Hong Kong. We no longer give this special status. Europe was not ready for that. They did it in the USA and are slowly starting to follow suit. More could have been done beforehand. It was not done. The least that can be done is now to offer the people who suddenly live in a completely different city a way out.

Europe doesn't dare

Büüsker: Do you think that that would actually have changed something if Europe had said, okay, we're going the US way, we're also abolishing Hong Kong's special status?

Ohlberg: It couldn't have been guaranteed. But I do believe that the Chinese government has calculated that we will encounter headwinds from the USA, they will threaten us, but they will not do it on their own, and under the current circumstances Europe will not dare to do that anyway, and you have calculated correctly. If the message had come very clearly from all camps, then we would pick it up, then that would not have guaranteed that the Chinese government would not have done that, but the chances that something could have been changed would be at least something been higher. I don't mean to say that that would have changed everything now. There was obviously a lot behind the Chinese side, too, that they really wanted to do that. But you could have used that even more, yes.

Büüsker: Why can China be so sure that Europe does not dare to face such situations?

Ohlberg: Because one now feels confident enough that the European governments, especially now after Covid-19 or still in the Covid-19 phase, are trying to get on well with China, that they are trying to get on with their own companies, does not want to risk the location in China. At the same point where all of this was relevant, Europe still tried to negotiate the investment agreement with China, although it was actually clear that this would not go any further, but they said we wanted to try and we want to join forces now the Chinese government do not invest. I think they know that in Beijing and they use it accordingly.

Statements by our interlocutors reflect their own views. Deutschlandfunk does not adopt statements made by its interlocutors in interviews and discussions as its own.