Hong Kong National Security Law: What to Know

A long-shelved security law that once kindled fear of eroding rights and galvanized Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement is making a comeback. Efforts to complete the legislation to protect the Chinese state will enter their final stages Tuesday, when lawmakers meet to resume their debate of the draft law and possibly vote to pass it. This will be a long-awaited victory for the authorities, whose 2003 attempt to make the law prompted the largest demonstrations the former British colony had seen since it returned to Chinese rule.

Those protests became an annual tradition drawing tens of thousands of democracy advocates and helping opposition parties raise funds. That stopped only after Beijing imposed a national security law in 2020, silencing dissent and wiping out many activist groups, including the one coordinating the annual march. Approval of the legislation isn’t in doubt as the government previously took steps to ensure only “patriots” could be lawmakers.

What is the new security law?

The new local legislation is known as Article 23, which refers to the section of Hong Kong’s mini constitution that requires the city to make its own law to protect national security. The city’s leader in January announced a proposal to fulfill that obligation with a new law called the Safeguarding National Security Ordinance. It seeks to create new offenses such as insurrection and external interference, and update colonial-era laws concerning state security. 

It also looks to expand the definition of key ideas such as state secrets. Current laws protecting such information mostly concern defense and intelligence matters, and don’t prohibit government workers from revealing confidential documents to endanger national security — something the new law would change. Hong Kong is expanding the term to include information relating to the economic and social development of the city, as well as major policy decisions and scientific technology, mirroring mainland China’s language on state secrets. People and companies handling sensitive documents should pay attention.

READ MORE  German bishops to head to Rome after Vatican demands they scrap a vote on contentious lay council

Why draft this law now?

Chief Executive John Lee, Hong Kong’s leader, cited increasingly complex geopolitics and rising threats of foreign spying in justifying the legislation. A footnote in the proposal cited the CIA’s establishment of a China Mission Center to focus on the Asian giant and remarks by the chief of the U.K.’s MI6 on recruiting more agents to spy on China. The document also alleges “barbaric and gross interference” from foreign governments and gives examples of overseas politicians threatening to impose sanctions on city officials. At a press conference, Lee said the city can’t afford to delay: “For 26 years we have been waiting,” he said, referring to the number of years since Hong Kong’s 1997 handover. The conditions are also ripe. The China-imposed security law has wiped out dissent, meaning Lee will face little opposition.

What about the existing national security law?

Beijing imposed the national security law in Hong Kong in June 2020 in response to anti-government unrest the previous year. That law will continue to exist and is expected to work in tandem with the proposed new local legislation. The planned law, for example, won’t deal with secession and subversion, offenses already covered by the NSL. An official leaflet about the proposal said the new law should complement and converge with the one imposed by Beijing.

What are the new offenses?

The government has proposed several new crimes, including:

Treason: The existing treason law punishes anyone who harms or levies war against “Her Majesty” — language that’s clearly out-dated. The new offense will include the use or threat of force with the intention to endanger national sovereignty or territorial integrity. This should also apply to residents who commit acts of treason outside the city.

READ MORE  Ukraine's Security Service kills fugitive Ukrainian official who collaborated with Russia during Kharkiv Oblast occupation

Insurrection: The government says Hong Kong needs an “insurrection” offense to address events such as the citywide protests of 2019, which it claims existing riot laws are in inadequate to handle. The new offense will escalate civil disturbance to a national security crime.

Sabotage: Vandalism of public infrastructure and damage to transport facilities with intent to endanger national security would be a crime under the proposed law. Digital acts, such as hacking the city’s financial systems, are to be considered more severe crimes. The proposal says existing laws on abusive use of computers don’t reflect the seriousness of such acts. The government is also looking to address future security risks from artificial intelligence.

External interference: Collaborating with external forces to influence policy making, lawmaking and elections will become a crime. The proposal says Hong Kong has been used as a “a bridgehead for anti-China activities” and emphasizes the risks of foreign forces harming national security through local non-governmental groups. The government considered setting up a system to require foreign agents to register, as the U.S. does, but decided instead to create a new offense to deal with the issue.

What’s the time frame?

The city’s Legislative Council will convene on March 19 to resume second reading of the bill in a fast-tracked legislative process. Lawmakers completed a clause-by-clause scrutiny of the 212-page bill on March 15 after the draft law was published just a week earlier, several days after a one-month public consultation period ended.

Leave a Comment