In Depth

Reaction: how China’s new security law ‘crushes Hong Kong dissent’

Controversial legislation appears even more stringent ‘both in scope and penalties’ than was feared

Chinese leader Xi Jinping has signed a controversial national security law for Hong Kong, almost exactly a year after students first flooded onto the city’s streets to protest against Beijing’s tightening grip over the territory. 

The stringent new legislation is designed to “quash any hint” of a resurgence of last year’s mass anti-government protests, with activists who challenge the authorities facing punishments including life imprisonment, says CNN

Just hours after the bill was passed, Hong Kong police posted an image on Twitter showing the first person arrested under the new laws - a man detained for holding a flag emblazoned with the message “Hong Kong independence”.

What is in the new law?

Early assessments of the law suggest that “some elements are stronger than many feared, both in scope and penalties”, says Australia’s ABC News. Under the new law:

  • • Four new offences have been established: secession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with foreign powers. Each carries a maximum penalty of life imprisonment.
  • • China is to set up a new law-enforcement presence in Hong Kong called the “Office for Safeguarding National Security”.
  • • Activities such as damaging public transport and public services “in order to pursue political agenda” can be considered terrorism, as can “dangerous activities which seriously jeopardise public health, safety or security”.
  • • Anyone who “steals, spies, obtains with payment, or unlawfully provides state secrets or intelligence” to a foreign country, organisation or individual may be deemed guilty of collusion with foreign powers.
  • • As well as targeting Hong Kong citizens, the law may also be applied to non-permanent residents in Hong Kong and even non-residents overseas who violate the law while abroad - meaning foreign nationals could be convicted of crimes they committed while overseas if they pass through the territory.
  • • Anyone convicted of a national security crime can no longer stand for elections or hold public office.
  • • Cases will be heard in Hong Kong, but in certain circumstances Beijing can extradite defendants to the mainland. Cases involving “state secrets or public order” may be heard in private court sessions.
  • • The law compels the Hong Kong government to more closely control foreign news agencies and non-government organisations.
  • • In cases where the law conflicts with existing Hong Kong legislation, the national security law takes precedence.
What has the reaction been?

“Conceived in secrecy and passed with intimidating speed,” the national security law “has ignited uncertainty about the future of Hong Kong”, says The New York Times.

“It marks the end of Hong Kong that the world knew before,” tweeted pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong. 

The legislation, which has been welcomed Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam, also “pushes Beijing further along a collision course with the United States, Britain and other Western governments”, says Reuters.

The US - which as the news agency notes, is “already in dispute with China over trade, the South China Sea and the coronavirus” - has now put in place trade sanctions on Hong Kong and announced plans to begin eliminating the territory’s special status under US law, halting defence exports and limiting technology access. 

Beijing has warned that China will retaliate to the measures.

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Meanwhile, the citizens of Hong Kong are bracing for further unrest.

“Hong Kong could be a simmering center of revolt for years,” says Washington D.C.-based news magazine Foreign Policy. “This summer could see violence - mostly at the hands of the police, but some by protesters - on a scale that dwarfs last year’s protests.”

As demonstrators begin to return to the streets in defiance of the new rules, the main Chinese government office today issued a stark warning: “Nobody should underestimate the determination of the central authorities to defend national security in Hong Kong.”

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