Hong Kong National Security Law

Updated: Apr 5


Photo by Time Magazine


Days before the 23rd anniversary of the handover of Hong Kong from Britain back to China, a secretive body of Chinese legislators passed a controversial national security law, citing concerns about Hong Kong’s security.  However, for Hong Kong citizens who have enjoyed more political freedoms than in mainland Chinese cities due to the city’s special status, this law is expected to destroy Hong Kong’s autonomy and do away with the “one country, two systems” principle Hong Kong was promised from the handover.


The new law criminalizes secession, subversion, terrorist activities, and collusion with foreign countries or bodies with a penalty of up to lifetime imprisonment, but the general ambiguity of the law combined with the harsh punishments--up to lifetime imprisonment--could spell disaster for the freedoms of people living in Hong Kong. 


Several articles included in the bill, including Article 20, which would categorize attempting to take action to separate Hong Kong from China or alter the legal status of Hong Kong as secession, and Article 24, which would define “serious interruption or sabotage of electronic control systems for providing and managing public services” as terrorism, seem to be aimed at suppressing political dissent in Hong Kong. Other articles, including Article 31, which would penalize companies and organizations, and Article 35, which would disqualify offenders from running for public office, also describe punishments for violating the bill.


Some other major changes the law will bring to Hong Kong include the establishment of a “Committee for Safeguarding National Security” and changes in the judiciary process, both of which would increase the Chinese government’s power over Hong Kong.

The Committee for Safeguarding National Security would be composed of several high-ranking Hong Kong officials, and would be responsible for the law’s implementation and oversight. However, they would not be subject to judicial review (Article 14) and would only be held accountable by Beijing (Article 12), meaning that they would be free to operate in complete secrecy without being bound by local law. In addition to its Hong Kong members, the committee would also include a National Security Advisor appointed by China, allowing China to play a direct role in the committee’s operations.


The law would also fundamentally change the judiciary process itself. According to Articles 41, 42, and 46, respectively, the law would allow the court to close the trial to the media and public, deny bail, or waive trial by jury under certain circumstances. Additionally, under the law, China would also be allowed to extradite subjects and exercise full legal jurisdiction over cases deemed “serious” or “complex” or “posing a major and imminent threat to national security,” as specified in Article 55. To those living in Hong Kong, this clause brings a sense of deja vu to last year, when a proposed extradition bill set off mass protests throughout the city. The new law would also recognize Chinese law as default over Hong Kong law, and would be interpreted by China’s National People’s Congress, sweeping aside the “one country, two systems” principle that Hong Kong had once been promised.


Perhaps even more concerning is that the law also carries implications for the international community as well, not just those living in Hong Kong. Article 38 states that the law applies even to offenses “committed...from outside the Region by a person who is not a permanent resident of the Region,” meaning that everyone on Earth technically falls under its jurisdiction. Additionally, according to Article 58, the Beijing-controlled Office of National Security established by this law would also play a role in “strengthen[ing] the management of and services for organs of foreign countries and international organizations in the Region, as well as non-governmental organizations and news agencies of foreign countries,” opening the door for even tighter censorship of international organizations and foreign media based in Hong Kong.


This law sparked international condemnation both at home and overseas, with several countries voicing concerns and taking action against China. In the US, the law triggered outrage from both sides of the aisle, with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo calling the legislation “draconian” and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi saying that the purpose of the “brutal” law was to “frighten, intimidate and suppress Hong Kongers.” The State Department and Commerce Department also took action, ending exports of US-origin defense equipment to Hong Kong and suspending preferential treatment Hong Kong had once been given over China due to its special status, respectively.


Other countries, including Britain, Australia, and Taiwan, have also expressed similar sentiments, and have made efforts to help Hong Kong nationals. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has announced that an upwards of 3 million Hong Kong residents would be allowed to settle in the UK, and eventually apply for citizenship. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, in response to a question asking if he was “disturbed by the crackdowns on protesters in Hong Kong and whether Australia would offer a safe haven for residents of the region...said: ‘the answer to both questions is yes and yes.’” Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen has called the law “a blow to public confidence.” and the country has also opened an office to help fleeing Hong Kong residents. Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi has also called the enactment of the law “regrettable.”


Despite the widespread international criticism China received after the enactment of the law, it’s unlikely that they will back down. China’s Foreign Minister Zhao Lijian has stated that Hong Kong-related matters are “purely China's internal affairs where no foreign country has any right to interfere.” Pro-Beijing Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam has also said that the law “will only target an extremely small minority of people who have breached the law, while the life and property, basic rights and freedoms of the overwhelming majority of Hong Kong residents will be protected.” Cuba, on the behalf of 53 other countries, also announced their support for the law in a joint statement to the Human Rights Council.


So what does the new law mean for Hong Kong? According to pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong, the law is an indicator of “the end of Hong Kong that the world knew before.” Wong, along with fellow activists Nathan Law, Jeffrey Ngo, and Agnes Chow, all leaders of the pro-democracy political organization Demosisto, have announced that they will step down, and Demosisto has also written on Facebook that they would disband. Another pro-independence group, Hong Kong National Front, has also said that they would disband local members, leaving its UK and Taipei divisions to continue their work. In addition to the disbandment of multiple political organizations, it’s feared that many pro-independence protestors and sympathizers with a lot to lose, especially those with families, may also step back from actively protesting against China out of fear of the new law. Although the future for Hong Kong looks bleak, Victoria Hui, a Notre Dame political science professor, predicts that protestors will become more decentralized and find new ways around the law to express their solidarity, abiding with the slogan and strategy of the Hong Kong protests, “Be Like Water.” 


“Hong Kong is not dead unless the people let it.” she says.



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