Hong Kong Government Pushes New Homegrown National Security Law

On Tuesday, the Hong Kong government released a 110-page consultation document that outlined plans for yet another national security law. This homegrown law joins a long list of recent initiatives by the government to increase its political control in the city, from youth “deradicalization” programs for political protesters to imitating Beijing’s “patriotic education” laws. Nectar Gan from CNN summarized the new legislation:

The proposed legislation will cover offenses including treason, theft of state secrets, espionage and external interference, in what Hong Kong officials say will “fill loopholes” in a sweeping national security law imposed on the city by China’s central government in 2020 following mass pro-democracy protests.

Known as Article 23, Hong Kong’s own security legislation was shelved in 2003 after a previous attempt to enact it drew half a million residents onto the streets in protest over fears it would erode civil liberties.

But no such public opposition is expected this time around. 

Beijing’s national security crackdown of recent years has transformed once-freewheeling Hong Kong, silencing almost all dissent and jailing dozens of political opponents. Many civil society groups have disbanded, and outspoken media outlets have shut down. [Source]

Under Article 23 of Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, the city is required to pass laws that prohibit seven specific offenses relating to national security. Some of these, such as secession and subversion, were criminalized under the 2020 National Security Law, and others, such as sedition and treason, are covered by colonial-era legislation. Chief Executive John Lee shared his determination to pass the proposed law “as soon as possible,” stating, “We can’t afford to wait.” He was “confident” that “[w]hen people see that this law will bring security and stability, they will love it.” Moreover, Lee reiterated his comment from last week that the government will establish special “response and refute teams” to promote Article 23 and counter “propaganda” from “hostile forces.”

At Hong Kong Free Press, Irene Chan noted that the document contains vague language that could allow for broad application of the proposed law

According to the consultation paper, the crime of “external interference” targets acts “with intent to bring about an interference effect, collaborating with an external force” to interfere in elections, forming or executing government policies, or any conduct “prejudicing the relationship” between Hong Kong and Beijing.

The document lists examples of external interference as that which has “exceeded the acceptable limit” of “genuine criticisms against government policies, legitimate lobbying work, general policy research, normal exchanges with overseas organisations or day-to-day commercial activities” as “normal international practice.”

It does not elaborate on how “genuine” and “legitimate” may be defined.

When asked by a reporter on Tuesday morning if foreign governments, foreign groups or politicians were to release statements on laws or rulings in Hong Kong they would be in breach of “external interference,” Lee said the government welcomed criticism from anyone as long as they did not intend to harm national security. [Source]

Photojournalist Galileo Cheng wrote a thread on X (formerly Twitter) highlighting important parts of the document, notably new and vaguely worded offenses:

At the South China Morning Post, reporters contributed to a live blog tracking the government press conference and legislative panels that introduced the new proposed law. During the legislative panel, Secretary for Justice Paul Lam Ting-kwok stated that the new law will have extraterritorial jurisdiction, and Secretary for Security Chris Tang Ping-keung stated that media and whistleblowers could violate the law by reporting information that may be considered state secrets—which he defined as releasing information that is confidential, pertaining to national security, and with an intention to threaten national security. 

Many academics and experts shared critical reactions to the proposed legislation. Patrick Poon, a visiting researcher at the University of Tokyo, told The New York Times, “The purpose is to have total control of Hong Kong’s activities, including freedom of expression,” adding, “It’s something we already expected would happen back in 2003, and that’s why half a million people took to the streets to try to stop it.” In Quartz, Mary Hui summarized, “The result: The government becomes judge, jury, and executioner of what makes something a piece of information and something else a state secret.” Benedict Rogers, co-founder and Chief Executive Officer of Hong Kong Watch, stated, “This legislation would be a further death knell to Hong Kong’s fundamental freedoms and human rights which are guaranteed under international law.” Finn Lau, the founder of Hong Kong Liberty and Stand with Hong Kong, tweeted, “[T]he new legislation is for the security of the Chinese Communist Party only.”

The public consultation period will last about one month, including the Lunar New Year holiday, and end on February 28. At Global Voices, Oiwan Lam highlighted concerns about the lack of rigor and transparency during the proposed law’s consultation process:

Reportedly, the government will skip some public consultation. Instead of tabling a white bill, it will submit the blue SNS Bill to the Legislative Council, which means the legal framework of the law has been determined, and there is little space for further amendment. Moreover, after Beijing rewrote Hong Kong’s election rules in 2021, the newly formed “patriotic-only” Legislature has no space for oppositional voices, thus, the bill would likely be passed with little oppositional voices. 

The transparency of the drafting process of the SNSL has stirred some worries. Victor Dawes, head of the Hong Kong Bar Association, stressed during the opening of the legal year on January 22 that the consultation must be “transparent and thorough” to refute claims that the government does not listen to the public. The president of the Law Society of Hong Kong, Chan Chak-ming, also stressed the necessity for the Hong Kong government to defend the SNS Bill and clarify misunderstandings and misconceptions about the situation in Hong Kong. [Source]

At The Wall Street Journal, Selina Cheng described Hong Kong’s increasingly tense business environment as the backdrop to this new national security law:

The push for the new law comes as Hong Kong struggles to reverse an outflow of businesses and residents following mass protests, a crackdown on dissent and tough pandemic-era restrictions. China is also struggling with a drop in foreign investment and waning business confidence. Concerns include restrictions on data and intelligence that have left foreign executives accused of overstepping the rules.

The Wall Street Journal last week reported that a seasoned British businessman was given a five-year sentence over accusations he provided information to intelligence agencies overseas. Japan said five of its citizens are currently detained by China’s intelligence agencies, including a pharmaceutical executive.

“It is not unimaginable that business worries over being criminalized for espionage, like those businessmen in the mainland, would extend to Hong Kong,” said Eric Lai, a research fellow at the Georgetown Center for Asian Law. [Source]

In related news, Hong Kong passed a new law on Monday that allows the enforcement of mainland Chinese court rulings in Hong Kong if they relate to civil and commercial disputes, further challenging the notion of “one country, two systems.” It was also reported that the new Amazon television series “Expats,” set and filmed in Hong Kong, is not available for viewing in that city, possibly due to an episode depicting protest scenes from the 2014 Umbrella Movement. Freedom House’s China Media Bulletin provided other legal updates from Hong Kong this month:

NSL repression grows: Hong Kong police arrested a man wearing a shirt that read “Free Hong Kong” at the airport and later charged him with sedition, after discovering more items bearing symbols of independence and liberation in his possession. In January, the man, Chu Kai-Pong, was sentenced to three months in prison on two counts of sedition. Another man, Tsang Kwok-Hei, faced sedition charges on January 19 over his online posts that allegedly incited hatred towards Beijing and Hong Kong authorities.

Justice department removes database: The Department of Justice deleted an online database of 106 cases where people were convicted under the NSL, Hong Kong media reported in January.

Police harass dissidents’ families: Hong Kong police questioned relatives of the exiled prodemocracy activists Simon Cheng and Francis Hui, after both issued with arrest warrants and placed under bounties last December, according to Nikkei’s report. [Source]

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