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PoliticsHong Kong

Hong Kong tightens control with new national security law

March 19, 2024

Article 23 of the Basic Law gives the Hong Kong government more power to crush dissent. The law, which mirrors Beijing's 2020 measures, aims to outlaw treason, sabotage, sedition, theft of state secrets and espionage.

A general view shows the chamber of the Legislative Council complex as the second reading of the Safeguarding National Security Bill is taking place in Hong Kong, China
Hong Kong's Legislative Council is poised to pass the new security bill as soon as possibleImage: Vernon Yuen/NurPhoto/picture alliance

Hong Kong's lawmakers on Tuesday unanimously passed a proposed national security law on top of a similar law imposed by Beijing four years ago that has already largely silenced opposition voices.

"Today is a historic moment for Hong Kong," said city leader John Lee, who added that the law would come into effect on March 23. 

The vote was held in special session one day before the regular Wednesday meeting of the Legislative Council. 

Government's desire to fast-track legislation

The bill was unveiled on March 8. The legislature, which is packed with Beijing loyalists, accelerated debate after Lee called for the law proposal to be pushed through "at full speed."

During Tuesday's meeting, lawmakers expressed strong support for the bill. Legislative Council President Andrew Leung said he believed all lawmakers were honored to be part of this "historic mission."

"I fully agree with what the Chief Executive said: the sooner the legislation is completed, the sooner national security will be safeguarded," he said.

Beijing's ever-tightening grip on Hong Kong

What is the new law about?

The new legislation paves the way for the government to gain more power to crush dissent in the semi-autonomous southern Chinese city. The law is widely seen as the latest step in a sweeping political crackdown that followed pro-democracy protests in 2019.

The proposed law threatens harsh penalties for a wide range of actions that the authorities call threats to national security, with the most serious, including treason and insurrection, punishable by life imprisonment.

Lesser offenses, including possession of seditious publications, could result in several years in prison. Some provisions allow prosecution for acts committed anywhere in the world.

Critics fear the new law will further erode civil liberties that Beijing promised to preserve for 50 years when the former British colony was returned to Chinese rule in 1997.

UN human rights chief Volker Türk decried the "rushed" passage of the new law on Tuesday, labeling it "a regressive step for the protection of human rights."

The United States said the new law could further erode citizens' rights in Hong Kong.

"We believe that these kinds of actions have the potential to accelerate the closing of Hong Kong's once open society," State Department spokesman Vedant Patel said.  "We are alarmed by the sweeping and what we interpret as vaguely defined provisions" in the law, he said.

Protesters push barricades toward police on a street during a stand-off outside the Legislative Council Complex ahead of the annual flag raising ceremony of 22nd anniversary of the city's handover from Britain to China on July 1, 2019 in Hong Kong, China
Pro-democracy protesters push barricades toward police during a stand-off outside the Legislative Council in 2019Image: Anthony Kwan/Getty Images

Crackdown on dissent

Since the massive street protests in 2019 that challenged China's rule over the semi-autonomous territory and led to the imposition of Beijing's national security law, Hong Kong's political scene has changed dramatically.

Many leading activists have been prosecuted. Others have fled abroad. Influential pro-democracy media outlets such as Apple Daily and Stand News have been shut down. The crackdown has caused disillusioned young professionals and middle-class families to flee to the United States, Britain, Canada and Taiwan.

Hong Kong is required by its mini-constitution, the Basic Law, to enact a homegrown national security law. A previous attempt in 2003 sparked massive street protests that drew half a million people. The legislation was forced to be shelved.

There have been no such protests against the current bill, largely because of the chilling effect of the existing security law.

dh/fb (AP, DW sources)