Article 23: Hong Kong passes second national security law that more closely aligns the city with mainland China

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From Hong Kong The legislature unanimously approved sweeping new powers Tuesday. which critics and analysts warned would more closely align the financial hub’s national security laws with those used in mainland China and deepen the ongoing crackdown on dissent.

the length The national security bill (the first draft was 212 pages) was quickly passed by the city’s Legislative Council, unopposed, with unusual speed at the request of city leader John Lee, and debated for just 11 days.

The law, which takes effect on Saturday, introduces 39 new national security crimes, adding to an already powerful national security law that was imposed directly by Beijing on Hong Kong in 2020 after huge and sometimes violent protests in favor of democracy the previous year.

That law has already transformed Hong Kong: Authorities have jailed dozens of political opponents, forced civil society groups and outspoken media outlets to disband, and transformed the once-free city into one that prioritizes patriotism. .

Known locally as Article 23, the new national security legislation covers a series of new crimes including treason, espionage, external interference and illegal handling of state secrets, with the most serious crimes punishable by up to life in prison.

Hong Kong Chief Executive Lee described it as a “historic moment for Hong Kong.”

Chen Yongnuo/China News Service/VCG/Getty Images

Lawmakers attend a meeting on legislation of Article 23 of the Basic Law at the Legislative Council on March 19, 2024 in Hong Kong, China.

“We… have completed a historic mission, lived up to the country’s trust and have not let down the central government,” he said, referring to the Chinese Communist Party’s leadership in Beijing.

The leaders of China and Hong Kong say the new laws are needed to “plug loopholes” as part of their campaign to “restore stability” following the huge protests of 2019. They argue their legislation is similar to other national security laws. Worldwide.

Critics respond that what the Chinese Communist Party considers national security crimes are much broader and more radical, often ensnaring political criticism, dissent and even business activities that would not be criminalized elsewhere.

The new legislation also comes as the Hong Kong government is embarking on a high-profile campaign this year to revive the city’s business credentials after a political crackdown, combined with nearly three years of strict coronavirus controls, would cause a Exodus of local and international talent..

Legal experts and business figures told CNN that the broad definitions and severe penalties contained in the new law would likely result in further repression against civil society and could threaten the city’s once-robust information exchanges for businesses, including its vaunted financial sector.

“Hong Kong authorities are eager to further tighten information control in the city as a corollary of stricter security legislation,” said Eric Lai, a researcher at the Georgetown Asian Law Center and an expert on Hong Kong’s legal system. Hong Kong.

Lai expects a “chilling effect” to deepen throughout society.

“The business community would be particularly affected by the new crimes of ‘theft of state secrets’ and ‘espionage,'” Lai added.

The new legislation has prohibited the “illicit acquisition”, “possession” and “disclosure of state secrets”, along with the crime of “espionage”. Violators can receive prison sentences of up to 20 years in the most serious circumstances.

Observers say the wording of the law has a broad interpretation of what is considered a state secret.

The definition ranges from a secret “relating to the construction of national defense” and “diplomatic or foreign affairs activities” of China to any “major political decision on issues” and “the economic or social development” of both Beijing and Hong Kong. Kong.

Hung Ho-fung, a sociology professor at Johns Hopkins University, said that when social and economic issues are treated as state secrets, “that is, they can include anything.”

“With these draconian and not clearly defined clauses, even apolitical businessmen can get into trouble and risk having their offices raided and themselves detained, arrested or banned from leaving, as is often the case in mainland China.” , he claimed. .

“This will surely increase the doubts, anxiety and uncertainty of foreign companies in Hong Kong.”

The US State Department said the new law had “the potential to accelerate the closure of Hong Kong’s once open society” and was analyzing what the potential risk could be to US citizens and “other US interests”.

“We are alarmed by the breadth and what we interpret as vaguely defined provisions set forth in your Article 23 legislation,” State Department deputy spokesman Vedant Patel said at a news conference.

Patel pointed out a number of problems with the law, such as being “fast-tracked through the non-democratically elected legislative council after a truncated public comment period” and having terminology that is “ill-defined and incredibly vague.”

The European Union also said it was concerned about the impact of the legislation on the “rights and freedoms of the people of Hong Kong.”

“The bill’s broad provisions and broad definitions, specifically relating to foreign interference and state secrets, appear to be of particular concern,” he said in a statement. “The significant increase in penalties provided for in the bill, its extraterritorial reach and its retroactive, at least partial, applicability are also deeply worrying.”

British Foreign Secretary David Cameron said the new law was “fast-tracked through the legislative process” and would have far-reaching implications for Hong Kong’s rule of law, rights and freedoms.

In a response on Tuesday, the Chinese embassy in London called Cameron’s comments a “serious distortion of facts” and defended the legislative process as “rigorous and procedurally based.”

“(The law) will contribute to a more stable and transparent business environment in Hong Kong, safeguarding long-term stability and prosperity in the city,” the statement said.

In mainland China, national security laws have often ensnared local and foreign companies in opaque investigations.

China’s state security authorities raid several offices of an international advisory firm Capvision last year, part of a broader crackdown on the consulting industry as Beijing tightens control over what it considers sensitive information related to national security.

The law also qualifies the involvement of “external forces” – a synonym for foreign governments and organizations – as an aggravating factor that justifies harsher sentences.

Sarah Brooks, director of Amnesty International China said the legislation “dealt another serious blow to human rights in the city.”

“Authorities enacted this law in the blink of an eye, dashing any hope that public outcry could counter its most destructive elements,” Brooks said in a statement. “This is a devastating moment for the people of Hong Kong.”

Johannes Hack, president of the German Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong, said that while many German companies remain committed to Hong Kong, they would like to see Hong Kong maintain its unique position that includes the free flow of capital and a common law judicial system. .

“[The law] “This makes it a little difficult to explain to our German shareholders that this is Hong Kong and is different from mainland China,” he said.

That’s something that also worries Emily Lau, a former pro-democracy lawmaker: that what made Hong Kong different is quickly fading.

“We want Hong Kong to prosper, we are part of China. I have never discussed it,” she told CNN.

“But we are different from the rest of China. But the difference is getting smaller, which is very sad.”

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