Hong Kong Legislature Unanimously Passes Fast-Tracked National Security Law

On Tuesday, Hong Kong’s legislature unanimously passed a new national security law that grants the government sweeping powers to crack down on opposition. Linked to Article 23 of the city’s Basic Law, the legislation expands on the already draconian 2020 National Security Law imposed by Beijing and threatens to further curtail civil liberties. Mercedes Hutton from the Hong Kong Free Press reported on the “historical” scene inside the Legislative Council Chamber:

Lawmakers gathered in the Legislative Council (LegCo) Chamber on Tuesday to vote on the Safeguarding National Security Bill, just days after a draft was introduced to the legislature. All 89 legislators voted in favour of the bill’s passage.

In an unusual move, LegCo President Andrew Leung also cast a vote. “As the president of the Legislative Council, I would not vote in usual circumstances,” Leung said in Cantonese. “However, legislation of Article 23 is not just any other piece of legislation, it relates to national security in Hong Kong, it is of the utmost importance, so at this historical moment I will vote in favour of the bill.”

Chief Executive John Lee entered the LegCo Chamber after the passage of the bill to address lawmakers.

“Today is a historical moment in Hong Kong, a historical moment we have waited 26 years, eight months and 19 days for… Today, Hong Kong finally completed its constitutional duty of legislating Article 23 of the Basic Law. We live up to the expectations of the central government and our country,” Lee said in Cantonese. [Source]

The law’s passage was unusually rapid, with voting taking place after only 11 days of debate, due largely to Chinese Communist Party (CCP) pressure. During a closed-door meeting in early March with Hong Kong delegates to China’s National People’s Congress, Chinese Vice-Premier Ding Xuexiang, who heads the CCP’s Central Leading Group on Hong Kong, urged the Hong Kong government to pass the new bill as soon as possible. Western observers had expected the law to arrive in time for China’s National Security Day on April 15. As it was, the law passed ahead of schedule: Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee said the law was processed “at full speed.” It will come into force on March 23. As Tiffany May and David Pierson reported for The New York Times, experts saw the swift passage of the law as a sign of the Hong Kong government’s fealty to Beijing:

“A rapid passage is meant to show people in Hong Kong the government’s resolve and ability to enforce it,” said Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute in London. “The new national security bill is as much about intimidation as it is about enforcement.”

For Mr. Lee, the Hong Kong leader, “the first concern is not how people in Hong Kong or in the rest of the world see this,” Professor Tsang said. “He is performing for the audience of one — Xi himself.”

“[Lawmakers] seem to be looking for ways to signal their fealty to the government’s national security agenda, and to ensure that they are demonstrating no daylight between themselves and the government,” [Thomas E. Kellogg, the executive director of the Center for Asian Law at Georgetown University,] said. [Source]

The law introduces 39 new national security crimes, some punishable by up to life in prison. Among the key offenses, as reported by Hong Kong Free Press, are treason, insurrection, espionage, sabotage, and external interference. The law also has extraterritorial effect. Kanis Leung from the AP outlined some of the law’s restrictive measures that empower law enforcement at the expense of citizens’ rights to due process:

Under the new bill, activists will face harsher penalties if they break the sedition law. They face seven years in prison if convicted for committing seditious acts or uttering seditious words — up from the current maximum sentence of two years. Colluding with an external force to carry out such activities is now punishable by up to 10 years, and it is not necessary for the prosecution to prove intent to incite public disorder or violence.

[…] The law also authorizes stiffer measures against suspects in national security cases: Police can apply to the court to extend detention without charges and prohibit suspects from consulting certain legal representatives. Some legal scholars and rights advocates say this would undermine due process.

Authorities would also be empowered to use financial sanctions to punish people who have fled abroad, potentially preventing them from being hired, leasing property, or starting businesses.

[…] The new law requires Chinese citizens to report to authorities if they know others are committing treason. Failure to report could be penalized by up to 14 years in prison. Ronny Tong, an adviser to the city leader, has said religious professionals are not exempt, even if they heard about the acts during confession.

[…] During one legislative discussion, officials were asked whether residents keeping copies of Apple Daily newspaper at home would be considered as possessing a seditious publication — an offense punishable by up to three years in jail. Security minister Chris Tang said it would be a reasonable defense if residents argued they had no recollection the publication was still in the home and it was not used for incitement. [Source]

Many critics worry about the law’s vague definitions of certain crimes. One Hong Kong civil servant told the BBC, “Let’s say a group of colleagues go out to lunch and discuss how to handle some work matters. Will it constitute leaking a state secret? Will we be arrested if someone eavesdrops and spreads the information?” One consulting firm told The Wall Street Journal that it would refuse to take on government work in order to avoid potentially coming into contact with state secrets. Chris Lau at CNN described other concerns about the overly broad interpretation of “state secrets” under the new law:

The definition ranges from a secret “concerning the construction of national defense” and “diplomatic or foreign affair activities” of China to any “major policy decision on affairs” and “the economic or social development” of both Beijing and Hong Kong.

Hung Ho-fung, sociology professor at Johns Hopkins University, said that when social and economic affairs are treated as state secrets, “this is to say it can include anything.”

“With these draconian and not clearly defined clauses, even apolitical business persons can get into trouble and will face the risk of their office being raided and themselves being detained, arrested or placed under exit ban as in many cases in mainland China,” he said. [Source]

Various international groups have sounded the alarm about the new legislation. The Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China called on governments to unite against this “flagrant breach of the Basic Law of Hong Kong, the Sino-British Joint Declaration, and international human rights law.” The U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights released a statement criticizing the rushed adoption of the “deeply troubling” law:

“It is alarming that such consequential legislation was rushed through the legislature through an accelerated process, in spite of serious concerns raised about the incompatibility of many of its provisions with international human rights law,” the High Commissioner said.

[…] “This ambiguity [in the provisions of the new law] is deeply troubling, given its potential misuse and arbitrary application, including to target dissenting voices, journalists, researchers, civil society actors and human rights defenders,” he said.

“As we have already seen, such provisions readily lead to self-censorship and chilling of legitimate speech and conduct, in respect of matters of public interest on which open debate is vital.”

[…] “For such important legislation, with a significant impact on human rights to be passed without a thorough process of deliberation and meaningful consultation is a regressive step for the protection of human rights in Hong Kong.” [Source]

Human rights groups were even more critical. Maya Wang from Human Rights Watch stated that the new law “will usher Hong Kong into a new era of authoritarianism. Now even possessing a book critical of the Chinese government can violate national security and mean years in prison in Hong Kong.” Anna Kwok from the Hong Kong Democracy Council called for international sanctions on Hong Kong officials. Amnesty International’s China director Sarah Brooks said that the law is a crushing blow to human rights and makes any act of peaceful protest more dangerous than ever:

“With this draconian legislation, the Hong Kong government has delivered another crushing blow to human rights in the city. The authorities have enacted this law in the blink of an eye, killing off any remaining shred of hope that public outcry could counter its most destructive elements.

“The passing of this law sends the clearest message yet that the Hong Kong authorities’ hunger to accommodate Beijing’s will outstrips any past commitments on human rights. The government has ignored ever-more urgent warnings from UN human rights experts that its approach to national security legislation is incompatible with Hong Kong’s international obligations.

“Above all, this is a devastating moment for the people of Hong Kong, hundreds of thousands of whom have previously marched through the streets to demonstrate against repressive laws, including an incarnation of this one in 2003. Today they lost another piece of their freedom – any act of peaceful protest is now more dangerous than ever. [Source]

“There are reasons to be worried,” John Burns, honorary professor of politics and public administration at the University of Hong Kong, told The Financial Times. “Authorities seem to perceive that they are grafting mainland national security law on to Hong Kong’s common law system.” Many Chinese netizens seem to agree. One now-deleted Weibo comment read: “Judging from the number of votes, Hong Kong is truly ‘integrating’ with the mainland. If you travel to Hong Kong next year, you may be able to see slogans about the ‘core socialist values’ on the subway.”

The Hong Kong government claimed widespread public backing for the law, citing 99 percent support in a public consultation on the law before its passage. But this year’s consultation earned only 15 percent of the public responses elicited during the same exercise done before the shelved Article 23 bill that brought 500,000 people out to protest in 2003. The overhaul of Hong Kong’s legislature to ensure that only “patriots” participate in governance also ensured that there was no real opposition to this national security law. In another sign of the schism between the government and its citizens, a poll that was released on the same day as the law’s passage found that Chief Executive John Lee’s popularity has sunk to a record low since he assumed office.

In the midst of this challenging time for civil society, however, some voices expressed hope for the future of Hong Kong:



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