Beijing has moved quickly to impose controversial new national security legislation on Hong Kong that severely curtails the territory’s previous freedoms and could mean life in prison for violators — local and foreign alike.
Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam called the law “a crucial step to ending chaos and violence that has occurred over the past few months,” saying criticism amounted to “vicious attacks.”
Within hours of the law coming into effect late Tuesday night, its presence was quickly felt. Among 370 arrests of protesters on Wednesday, 10 were detained under the auspices of the NSL — including a 15-year-old girl who was waving a Hong Kong independence flag.
Hundreds came out Wednesday on July 1, the 23rd anniversary of the handover of Hong Kong from British rule to China, to protest the legislation — a far cry from the hundreds of thousands that crowded the streets a year earlier in protest of a deeply unpopular extradition bill. The anniversary is usually marked by large pro-democracy demonstrations, but this year was the first time since the 1997 handover that police did not issue permission for the normally peaceful protests to occur.
Instead, protesters and media were met with pepper spray, water cannons, tear gas and rubber bullets.
In recent days, people have rushed to delete digital footprints on social media and take down posters and signs that supported the pro-democracy protests out of fear of future retaliation. They are concerned that critical speech that was once commonplace could lead to devastating consequences.
The new law is worded vaguely, but it criminalizes secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign powers. The maximum penalty for these four categories of offences is life in prison.
The vaguely-worded definitions of what is considered to fall within these categories mean that its scope is unusually broad. For example, the charge of terrorism can include “other dangerous activities which seriously jeopardize public health, safety or security” — which could be variously interpreted.
The law gives Beijing the power to establish its own law enforcement presence in Hong Kong and take over cases and try them under mainland Chinese law (which leads to criminal conviction rates of nearly 100%). National security cases can now be tried in secret closed-door trials, without juries in “complicated” cases, or those involving state secrets. A new security unit set up within the Hong Kong police will have the power to secretly surveil and search properties and detain people without a warrant.
The law criminalizes the act of calling on a foreign country, institution or individual to impose sanctions on Hong Kong, as well as the act of working with a foreign government or entity to incite hatred against Hong Kong or Chinese authorities. It also specifically calls for increased control over foreign news outlets and NGOs, and says that those who “unlawfully provide state secrets or intelligence” to foreign countries or entities can be found guilty of collusion.
The new law is intended to take precedence over local Hong Kong law in cases of conflict. It has extra-territorial reach, meaning that people, organizations and companies physically outside the territory could also be liable to arrest when they enter Hong Kong or mainland China.
Canada updated its travel advice for Hong Kong on Wednesday to warn its citizens that they “may be at increased risk of arbitrary detention on national security grounds and possible extradition to mainland China.” Thailand also warned its citizens of increased risk if they travel to Hong Kong.
The U.K. said Wednesday that it would offer a new path to citizenship for eligible Hong Kongers with British National Overseas passports. It called the new law in “clear violation of the autonomy of Hong Kong, and a direct threat to the freedoms of its people.” On Thursday, the Australian government too said that it was considering offering safe haven to Hong Kong people.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement Tuesday that Beijing’s decision to impose the “draconian” legislation “destroys the territory’s autonomy” and “eviscerate[s] the very foundation of the territory’s success, turning ‘One Country, Two Systems’ into ‘One Country, One System’.”
“The Chinese Communist Party promised 50 years of freedom to the Hong Kong people, and gave them only 23,” he said.