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What Hong Kong's Article 23 means for its future

Yuchen Li in Taipei | Phoebe Kong in Hong Kong
March 20, 2024

Hong Kong's new security law, set to take effect on March 23, accelerates Beijing's control over opposition and erodes civil liberties. The law introduces offenses punishable by life in prison.

Riot police cordon a road in Mong Kong, Hong Kong, on May 27, 2020, rounding a hundred of people, including students and elderlies were asked to back face the crowd, and were sent away by police vehicles. Protesters take to streets in various districts of Hong Kong on Wednesday in protest of Beijing s plan to impose national security law in the city.
Following the sweeping national security law Beijing imposed on Hong Kong in 2020, the latest bill is widely believed to further undermine the city's freedom Image: EyePress/Newscom/IMAGO

Hong Kong has passed a draconian national security law at a fast-tracked speed, which experts warn is an effort to quickly extend Beijing's grip over the remaining opposition to its erosion of civil liberties in the semi-autonomous territory. 

On Tuesday, the city's pro-Beijing legislature finished the second and third readings of the "Safeguarding National Security Bill," also known as Article 23 of the Basic Law, before proceeding to the final vote.

With unanimous support from all 89 lawmakers, the bill is now set to take effect on March 23 — nearly a month earlier than many observers had expected.

The specific laws will introduce a range of new offenses including treason, espionage, external interference and disclosure of state secrets – some of which are punishable by up to life in prison.

Following the first passage of a sweeping national security law Beijing imposed on Hong Kong in 2020, the latest bill is widely believed to further undermine the city's freedom and autonomy promised by Beijing after the region returned from British colonial rule in 1997.

A 'direct order' from Beijing?

There is widespread international concern over the sudden fast-tracked legislative process.

United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk said in a statement that it is alarming to see "such consequential legislation was rushed through the legislature."

Beijing's ever-tightening grip on Hong Kong

Eric Lai, a research fellow at Georgetown University's Center for Asian Law, shed light on the timing of the "speeding up."

He noted that it came right after Hong Kong's Chief Executive John Lee visited Beijing earlier this month to attend the annual meeting of China's National People's Congress

"It's believed Beijing has given rather clear instructions to impose the legislation in Hong Kong as soon as possible," he told DW. Speeches in recent months from officials have constantly highlighted the importance of passing the law "sooner rather than later," he added.

Chief Executive Lee said on Tuesday that the passage of the law is a "historical moment" waited upon for over 26 years, adding that Hong Kong finally completed its constitutional duty and "lives up to the expectations of the central government."

Some lawmakers also pointed out that large-scale protests in the past decade would not have happened if the law was enacted earlier.

"It seems that they've received a direct order from Beijing," Lai said.

An armored police vehicle is parked outside the Legislative Council complex in Hong Kong
The Legislative Council in Hong Kong is resuming the second reading of the Safeguarding National Security Bill, also known as the Article 23 legislationImage: Vernon Yuen/NurPhoto/picture alliance

Beijing tightens its grip on Hong Kong

In 2020, Beijing imposed a sweeping national security law on Hong Kong, with officials saying it could bring stability to the city after months of pro-democracy protests erupted in 2019.

Since then, the voice of dissidents and opposition have largely died down. But the authorities still believe Article 23 is required to tie up loose ends, despite a previous failed attempt in 2003 after around 500,000 protesters took to the streets.

"They want more legal tools to tighten their grip on Hong Kong society," said researcher Lai.

Compared to the first national security law, Article 23 will strengthen the law enforcement power of the Hong Kong police, notably in regard to extension of detention measures and restrictions on access to lawyers under certain conditions.

Lai said that this will considerably "deter the public from participating in public affairs" and that crimes related to sedition may have the greatest impact on Hong Kong citizens.

Since the definition of the offense is relatively unclear and broad, "causing disputes" between citizens in Hong Kong and in Mainland China can also be induced as an intent of sedition, Lai said. 

Amnesty International's China director Sarah Brooks called the new law "a devastating moment" for the people of Hong Kong, as "they lost another piece of their freedom – any act of peaceful protest is now more dangerous than ever."

Vague legislation leaves room for interpretation

In response to widespread criticism from other governments and human rights groups, Hong Kong authorities have argued that the law is comparable to security laws in Western countries, such as the UK, the US and Canada.

Amendments to the draft include provisions for public interest defenses in cases involving the disclosure of state secrets, but only if the disclosure "manifestly outweighs" the public interest served by withholding the information.

Despite the government's defense, researcher Lai noted that many regulations appear vague and broad when viewed through international standards, providing the authorities more room for interpretation of individual cases.

For instance, the draft explicitly states that "external forces" include not only a foreign government but also an international organization and its associated entities and individuals.

"Foreign media, non-governmental organizations, religious groups and academic institutions, all have the potential to be implicated," Lai added.

Chan Ron-sing, the chairman of the Hong Kong Journalists Association, also expressed worries that the new law will affect not only the survival of journalists, but also the entire media ecosystem.

"I am most worried that more young people will be deterred from joining the profession [journalism] because of the concerns over Article 23," Chan told DW.

Beijing's ever-tightening grip on Hong Kong

Hong Kong's status as global financial hub in jeopardy?

Johannes Hack, the president of the German Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong, told DW that since the definition of state secrets and collusion is quite broad and the penalties are severe, companies tend to "over comply."

"And overcompliance simply can mean that you don't do things any longer," he added.

But compared with mainland China, Hong Kong to him is still a distinctive region and the first stop for businesses looking to crack the world's second-largest economy.

"I don't think anybody's going to look at this [Article 23] and say okay this is where I move out," Hack said, but it could become more challenging to convince foreign firms that the city is different from the mainland.

Now that the legislation is put in place, Hack said he would hope for the Hong Kong market to "move on" and focus on openness as well as "making an attractive place for people to come and do business."

Edited by: Sou-Jie van Brunnersum