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Hong Kong passes security law which critics say further threatens freedoms

Hong Kong, China

Hong Kong lawmakers on Tuesday unanimously passed a new national security bill within two weeks of it being presented, fast-tracking a major piece of legislation that critics say further threatens the China-ruled city’s freedoms.

The package, known as Article 23, punishes offences including treason, sabotage, sedition, the theft of state secrets, external interference and espionage with sentences ranging from several years to life imprisonment.

A general view of lawmakers attending the second reading of the Safeguarding National Security Bill, also referred to as Basic Law Article 23, at Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, in Hong Kong, China on 19th March, 2024. PICTURE: Reuters/Joyce Zhou

Hong Kong leader John Lee said the law would come into effect on Saturday and called it a “historic moment”.

The legislation comes on top of a China-imposed national security law in 2020 that has been used to jail pro-democracy activists after violent street protests a year earlier and triggered sanctions from the United States, including against Lee.

Some lawmakers, however, shrugged off the risk of further sanctions and possible credit rating downgrades.

“We have to legislate for the security of our country and Hong Kong. Whatever comes, will come. We don’t mind,” said the head of the legislature, Andrew Leung.

Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, stacked with pro-Beijing loyalists, was first presented with the bill on 8th March following a month-long public consultation.

The new law will have extraterritorial effect, giving rise to fears it could be used to intimidate and restrict free speech in other jurisdictions.

Critics, including the US Government, say the law will further narrow freedoms, and could be used to “eliminate dissent through the fear of arrest and detention”.

Hong Kong returned from British to Chinese rule in 1997 with the guarantee its freedoms, including freedom of speech, would be protected under a “one country, two systems” formula. Critics of the 2020 law say those freedoms have eroded swiftly.

The United States believes the passing of the new bill has the potential to accelerate the closing of a once-open society, State Department deputy spokesperson Vedant Patel said, adding that a lot of the phrasing, including on external interference, was “incredibly vague”.

“We’re analysing this legislation and we are taking a look at what the potential risk could be to not just US citizens but other American interests that we might have,” Patel told reporters at a regular news briefing.

Hong Kong security chief Chris Tang poses for photos with lawmakers as they hold drafts of the Safeguarding National Security Bill, also referred to as Basic Law Article 23, before the second reading at Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, in Hong Kong, China, on 19th March, 2024. PICTURE: Reuters/Joyce Zhou

Britain said the legislation would impact Hong Kong’s reputation as an international city that respects the rule of law, has independent institutions and protects its citizens’ freedoms.

“This new law, rushed through the legislative process, will have far-reaching implications for all of these areas,” Foreign minister David Cameron said in a statement. He said it undermined the terms of the 1984 agreement under which Britain handed back its colony to China.

The US Congressional-Executive Commission on China – which advises the US Congress – published a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken last Thursday criticising the new laws and urging the US Government to “take additional steps to protect American citizens and businesses”.

China’s Foreign Ministry Commissioner’s office in Hong Kong condemned the United States for its criticism.

“Immediately stop the political manipulation and interference in Hong Kong affairs,” it said in an earlier statement.

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All 89 lawmakers present voted to pass the bill. The assembly once had a strong pro-democracy camp but was overhauled in 2021 to ensure only Chinese “patriots” could run for office.

China’s State Council Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, said the law would “secure Hong Kong’s prosperity and stability” as well as safeguard the interests of overseas investors, democracy and freedom.

Critics say authorities largely ignored calls from diplomats, legal scholars, rights advocacy groups to better safeguard fundamental rights, including exemptions for the media from crimes like state secrets.

One foreign executive with decades of experience in Hong Kong and China said the new law could hurt Hong Kong as it finds itself caught between US-China geopolitical tensions.

“To the rest of the world, Hong Kong is increasingly considered to be a part of China – economically and politically. Its uniqueness continues to be eroded,” he said, declining to be identified given the sensitivity of the topic.

Hong Kong officials, however, say the laws are no more severe than those in other countries including the United States, Britain and Singapore; and will ensure stability and prevent a repeat of the 2019 protests.

– With reporting by EDWARD CHO and WILLIAM JAMES in London, UK; Additional reporting by SIMON LEWIS in Washington, DC


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