Hong Kong’s new national security bill includes stiff penalties and more power to suppress dissent

Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee, center, waves to delegates after the opening session of the National People's Congress (NPC) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Tuesday, March 5, 2024. (AP Photo/Andy Wong)

Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee, center, waves to delegates after the opening session of the National People’s Congress (NPC) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Tuesday, March 5, 2024. (AP Photo/Andy Wong)

HONG KONG (AP) — Hong Kong unveiled a proposed law that threatens life imprisonment for residents who “endanger national security” on Friday, deepening worries about erosion of the city’s freedoms four years after Beijing imposed a similar law that all but wiped out public dissent.

It’s widely seen as the latest step in a crackdown on political opposition that began after the semi-autonomous Chinese city was rocked by violent pro-democracy protests in 2019. Since then, the authorities have crushed the city’s once-vibrant political culture. Many of the city’s leading pro-democracy activists have been arrested and others fled abroad. Dozens of civil society groups have been disbanded, and outspoken media outlets like Apple Daily and Stand News have been shut down.

Hong Kong leader John Lee has urged legislators to push the Safeguarding National Security Bill through “at full speed,” and lawmakers began debate hours after the bill was released publicly. It’s expected to pass easily, possibly in weeks, in a legislature packed with Beijing loyalists following an electoral overhaul.

The proposed law will expand the government’s power to stamp challenges to its rule, targeting espionage, disclosing state secrets, and “colluding with external forces” to commit illegal acts among others. It includes tougher penalties for people convicted of working with foreign governments or organizations to break some of its provisions.

The law would jail people who damage public infrastructure with the intent to endanger national security for 20 years — or life, if they collude with an external force to do so. In 2019, protesters occupied the airport and vandalized railway stations.

Similarly, those who commit sedition face a jail term of seven years, but colluding with an external force to carry out such acts increase that penalty to 10 years.

On Thursday, an appeals court upheld a conviction for sedition against a pro-democracy activist for chanting slogans and criticizing the Beijing-imposed 2020 National Security Law during a political campaign.

Its expansive definition of external forces includes foreign governments and political parties, international organizations, and “any other organization in an external place that pursues political ends” — as well as companies that are influenced by such forces. Beijing said the 2019 unrest was supported by external forces, and the city government has condemned what it called external interference during the protests.

The bill allows prosecutions for acts committed anywhere in the world for most of its offenses.

Critics say that the proposed law would make Hong Kong even more like mainland China.

The European Union said the bill covers “an even wider range” of offenses than previously disclosed, including sweeping bans on external interference and significantly hardened provisions on sentencing.

“The legislation risks exacerbating the erosion of fundamental freedoms in Hong Kong brought about, in particular, by the 2020 National Security Law,” it said.

However, Beijing insisted that the bill balances maintaining security with safeguarding rights and freedoms. The city government said it was necessary to prevent a recurrence of the massive anti-government protests that rocked the city in 2019, insisting it would only affect “an extremely small minority” of disloyal residents.

It defined national security as a status in which the state’s political regime and sovereignty are relatively free from danger and threats, so are the welfare of the people and the state’s economic and social development among other “major interests.”

The legislature’s president, Andrew Leung, told reporters that the process was accelerated because the bill was necessary to safeguard national security.

“If you look at other countries, they enacted it within a day, two weeks, three weeks. … So why can’t Hong Kong do it in a speedy manner? You tell me,” the pro-Beijing politician said.

But the British consulate in Hong Kong urged authorities to “allow time for proper legislative scrutiny.” The city was a British colony until it returned to Chinese rule in 1997.

Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, the Basic Law, requires the city to enact a national security law, but a previous attempt sparked a massive street protest that drew half a million people, and the legislation was shelved.

Such protests against the current bill are unlikely, due to the chilling effect of the 2020 law after it was enacted to quell the 2019 protests.

During a one-month public comment period that ended last week, 98.6% of the views received by officials showed support, and only 0.72% opposed the proposals, the government said. The rest contained questions or opinions that did not reflect a stance on the law, it added.

But businesspeople and journalists have expressed fear that a broadly framed law could criminalize their day-to-day work, especially because the proposed definition of state secrets includes matters linked to economic, social and technological developments. The government has sought to allay concerns by adding a public interest defense under specific conditions in the proposal.

John Burns, an honorary professor of politics and public administration at the University of Hong Kong, said it remains to be seen how courts will interpret the provision that allows a public interest defense to charges of disclosing state secrets.

The bill, if passed as tabled, is likely to have chilling effect on local civil society, Burns said, especially political and public policy lobby groups that have benefited from connections to overseas counterparts.

“At least initially, I expect them to be especially cautious about expanding links with similar groups overseas,” he said.

Eric Lai, a research fellow at Georgetown Center for Asian Law, said fears about the law “are now materialized.”

He called it “overbroad and vague,” particularly for offenses involving state secrets and external forces, and said it would undermine due process by allowing extended detention without charges, and by limiting the right to a lawyer.

People arrested on suspicion of national security offenses and released on bail could face “movement restriction orders” which limit the places they can go and where they can live, as well as prevent them from communicating with certain people.

Police can also apply to the court to extend detentions and prohibit suspects from consulting certain lawyers.

Authorities would also be empowered to use financial sanctions to punish people who have fled abroad, such as preventing other people from hiring them, leasing them property, starting businesses with them, or providing economic support to them.

Last year, police offered bounties of 1 million Hong Kong dollars ($128,000) on more than a dozen activists living abroad, including former lawmakers Nathan Law and Ted Hui, whom they accuse of colluding with external forces to impose sanctions on Hong Kong and China.

Prisoners convicted of national security offenses will not be eligible for sentences reductions until authorities are confident early release would not risk national security. This would apply to all national security prisoners, even those whose sentences were imposed prior to the bill.

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