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Hong Kong legislature unanimously passes new national security law

HONG KONG, March 20 ------ Hong Kong lawmakers, unanimously passed a new national security bill within a fortnight of it being tabled, fast-tracking a major piece of legislation that critics say further threatens the China-ruled city’s freedoms. The package, known as Article 23, punishes offenses including treason, sabotage, sedition, the theft of state secrets, external interference, and espionage, with sentences ranging from several years to life imprisonment. 


Hong Kong’s leader John Lee said the law would come into effect on March 23 and called it a “historic moment for Hong Kong.” This new slate of laws comes on top of an earlier, China-imposed national security law that had already triggered sanctions from the United States, including against Lee. Some lawmakers, however, shrugged off the risk of further sanctions and possible credit rating downgrades. “We have to legislate for the security of our country and Hong Kong. Whatever comes, will come. We don’t mind,” said the head of the legislature, Andrew Leung. 


Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, stacked with pro-Beijing loyalists, was first presented with the bill on March 8 following a month-long public consultation. Authorities say the legislation is necessary to plug loopholes in the national security regime despite the enactment of the China-imposed law that has been used to jail pro-democracy activists. The new law will have extraterritorial effect outside of Hong Kong, giving rise to fears it could be used to intimidate and restrict free speech in other jurisdictions. Critics, including the US government, say the law will further narrow freedoms, and could be used to “eliminate dissent through the fear of arrest and detention.” 


The US Congressional-Executive Commission on China – which advises the US Congress – published a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken last Thursday, March 14, criticizing the new laws and urging the US government to “take additional steps to protect American citizens and businesses.” “An ever-expanding notion of national security will only make Hong Kong less safe for US businesses and citizens living in Hong Kong as well as Hong Kongers seeking to exercise their fundamental freedoms,” it wrote.  


China’s Foreign Ministry Commissioner’s office in Hong Kong condemned the United States for its criticism. “Immediately stop the political manipulation and interference in Hong Kong affairs,” it said in an earlier statement. All 89 lawmakers present, including the legislature’s president, voted to pass the bill. The assembly once had a strong pro-democracy camp but was overhauled in 2021 to ensure only Chinese “patriots” could run for public office. 


China’s State Council Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office said the law would “secure Hong Kong’s prosperity and stability” as well as safeguard the interests of overseas investors, democracy and freedom, and “the human rights and fundamental well-being of all Hong Kong citizens.” Critics say authorities largely ignored calls from diplomats, legal scholars, rights advocacy groups to better safeguard fundamental rights, including exemptions for the media from crimes like state secrets. One foreign executive with decades of experience in Hong Kong and China said the new law could hurt Hong Kong as it finds itself caught between US-China geopolitical tensions. “To the rest of the world, Hong Kong is increasingly considered to be a part of China – economically and politically. Its uniqueness continues to be eroded,” he said, declining to be identified given the sensitivity of the topic. Hong Kong officials, however, say the laws are no more severe than those in other countries including the United States, Britain and Singapore, and will ensure stability and prevent a repeat of the mass pro-democracy protests in 2019.  




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