How will a new national security law affect different walks of life in Hong Kong?

Hong Kong has passed a new national security law that could redefine the liberties of its citizens, and its role on the world stage

Kanis Leung
Tuesday 19 March 2024 11:20 GMT
Hong Kong National Security Law
Hong Kong National Security Law (Copyright 2024 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


As Hong Kong passed a new national security law, the city that evolved from a swampy fishing village to a financial center embarked on another transformation, one that may redefine its role on the world stage and the liberties of its citizens.

For the government and supporters of Beijing, the legislation is the keystone in fulfilling a constitutional duty, heralding a new era focused squarely on economic prosperity. It will take effect on Saturday.

However, for those who value Hong Kong’s once-vibrant political culture and commitment to openness, the legislation exacerbates fears of dwindling Western-style civil liberties that are fundamental to its allure as a global financial hub.

Here's what you need to know about the new law.

Doesn’t the city already have a national security law?

Four years ago, Beijing imposed a sweeping security law triggered by the massive anti-government protests in 2019.

The law was used to prosecute many leading activists, including media tycoon Jimmy Lai and former student leaders like Joshua Wong and Lester Shum. Others were silenced or forced into self-exile. Dozens of civil society groups facing police investigations and other obstacles closed, as well as vocal pro-democracy media outlets Apple Daily and Stand News. The drastic political changes prompted a large number of young professionals and middle-class families to emigrate to Britain, Canada, Taiwan, Australia and the United States, among other places.

Beijing and Hong Kong governments say the law helped bring back stability.

Why does the city need a new law?

Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, the Basic Law, requires the city to enact a home-grown national security law.

In 2003, an attempt to pass a version of the law sparked a street protest that drew half a million people who feared the legislative efforts would erode the city's freedoms. The legislation was shelved.

Then, in late January, a public consultation on the legislation resurfaced. Hong Kong leader John Lee said the legislation is needed to fulfill a long-overdue duty, and often referred to the 2019 protests to justify that need, saying it will keep Hong Kong safe against “potential sabotage” and “undercurrents that try to create troubles” — particularly lurking ideas about Hong Kong independence. Some foreign agents might still be active in Hong Kong, he added.

“This is a law to tell people not to attack us,” Lee said.

What is the new law about?

As proposed in the Safeguarding National Security Bill, the new law expands the government's power to stamp out future challenges to its rule, punishing treason and insurrection with up to life imprisonment.

The law also includes stiff prison terms for other offenses, including up to 20 years for espionage and up to 10 years for the unlawful disclosure of state secrets. Some provisions allow criminal prosecutions for certain acts committed anywhere in the world.

Additionally, tougher penalties would be imposed on people convicted of working with foreign governments or organizations to commit certain offenses. For example, residents who damage public infrastructure with the intent to endanger national security could be jailed for 20 years — or life, if they collude with an external force to do so.

The law could curb disruptive protests like the one in 2019 when dissenters occupied the airport and vandalized railway stations.

How will this affect business people, financial professionals and journalists?

Financial professionals who often deal with sensitive corporate information are worried about some provisions related to the protection of state secrets because they echo the broad definition of secrets used in mainland China, which covers economic, social and technological developments beyond traditional security fields.

While the offenses outlined in the new law pertain to acts conducted without lawful authority, there is anxiety that the law may create gray areas.

Some foreign business leaders said the cost of complying with the new law could result in investors directing their capital elsewhere. Investment decisions for Western businesses weigh on the balance between social stability and an open and legally predictable business environment, they said.

Journalists are concerned their reporting might also inadvertently lead to legal issues. A leading media professional group, Hong Kong Journalists Association, pointed to some provisions involving state secrets that do not require proof of intent to harm national security. Although the government added a public interest defense in the bill, the scope is more limited than what they had recommended, the association said.

The government has tried to assuage the concerns, saying the legislation targets “an extremely small minority of people” who endanger national security, and insisting that normal business people, individuals, organizations, and the media sector “will not unwittingly violate the law.”

How about activists?

After the 2019 protests, the city's colonial-era sedition law has been increasingly used to target dissidents.

Under the new bill, activists will face harsher penalties if they break the sedition law. They face seven years in prison if convicted for committing seditious acts or uttering seditious words — up from the current maximum sentence of two years. Colluding with an external force to carry out such activities is now punishable by up to 10 years, and it is not necessary for the prosecution to prove intent to incite public disorder or violence.

Amnesty International’s China Director Sarah Brooks worried that the new crime broadly defined as “external interference" could lead to the prosecution of activists who interacted with overseas individuals or organizations and be “framed as ‘endangering national security.'"

The law also authorizes stiffer measures against suspects in national security cases: Police can apply to the court to extend detention without charges and prohibit suspects from consulting certain legal representatives. Some legal scholars and rights advocates say this would undermine due process.

Authorities would also be empowered to use financial sanctions to punish people who have fled abroad, potentially preventing them from being hired, leasing property, or starting businesses.

In 2023, 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.

How about residents who are not politically active?

The new law requires Chinese citizens to report to authorities if they know others are committing treason. Failure to report could be penalized by up to 14 years in prison. Ronny Tong, an adviser to the city leader, has said religious professionals are not exempt, even if they heard about the acts during confession.

On Friday, the Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong assured believers that the new legislation will not change the confidential nature of confession. Still, the diocese acknowledged citizens have an obligation to ensure national security.

During one legislative discussion, officials were asked whether residents keeping copies of Apple Daily newspaper at home would be considered as possessing a seditious publication — an offense punishable by up to three years in jail. Security minister Chris Tang said it would be a reasonable defense if residents argued they had no recollection the publication was still in the home and it was not used for incitement.

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