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 has made a successful comeback. The city’s lawmakers unanimously passed local legislation to protect the Chinese state on March 19. That marked 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 new domestic security legislation wasn’t in doubt as the government 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 created new offenses such as insurrection and external interference, and update colonial-era laws concerning state security.

It also expanded the definition of key ideas such as state secrets. Previous laws protecting such information mostly concern defense and intelligence matters, but the new ordinance expanded 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.

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 couldn’t afford more delay. “For 26 years we have been waiting,” he said, referring to the number of years since Hong Kong’s 1997 handover. The conditions for its passing were ripe. With the China-imposed security law having wiped out dissent, Lee faced little opposition.

What about the previous 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 continues to exist and will work in tandem with the new local legislation. The domestic law, for example, doesn’t deal with secession and subversion, offenses already covered by the NSL.

What are the new offenses?

The new law created several new crimes, including:

Treason: The previous 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 applies to residents who commit acts of treason outside the city.

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 inadequate to handle. The new offense elevates civil disturbance to a national security crime.

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

External interference: Collaborating with external forces to influence policy making, lawmaking and elections has become a crime. The proposal of the law 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.

How was the law passed?

The city’s Legislative Council convened on March 19 to resume final debate of the bill and approved it 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.

All members of the city’s “patriots-only” legislature voted in favor of the law in a specially arranged session. Their approval of the measure within an 11-day window marked the fastest passing of a law in the city since 1997.

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