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Hong Kong passes strict national security law, West wary

Fresh legislation strengthens already stringent 2020 China-imposed national security law, which came into effect following massive pro-democracy protests 

Hong Kong passes strict national security law, West wary
[Source photo: Chetan Jha/Press Insider]

Hong Kong lawmakers have passed a new national security law that carries severe punishment for a broad range of offenses, including treason and sedition, with critics alleging that it curtails freedom in the China-ruled city-state. 

The new legislation, called the Safeguarding National Security Bill, will strengthen the already stringent 2020 China-imposed national security law that came into effect following massive pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.

It provides the government with the power to punish acts deemed to be treason, sabotage, sedition, theft of state secrets, external interference, and espionage. The punishment for these offenses range from several years to life imprisonment.

Calling the passing of the law by Hong Kong’s Legislative Council a “historic moment”, chief executive John Lee said the law would come into effect from Saturday.

Hong Kong lawmakers fast-tracked the bill for approval within two weeks of a full draft.

Critics said the law can be used to even deny people a lawyer. Broad offenses like “unauthorized acts related to a computer or electronic systems” and vague concepts like “external interference” may also be used to crack down on activists and government critics, human rights groups said.

“The new security law will usher Hong Kong into a new era of authoritarianism. Now even possessing a book critical of the Chinese government can violate national security and mean years in prison in Hong Kong,” Maya Wang, acting China director at Human Rights Watch, said. 

Wang called on the Hong Kong government to immediately repeal the Article 23 ordinance and the National Security Law, halt its aggressive assault on basic rights, and release those arbitrarily detained. 

“Foreign governments should hold Beijing accountable by imposing coordinated and targeted sanctions, including travel bans and asset freezes, on abusive Chinese and Hong Kong officials, and protect overseas Hong Kong activists from Beijing’s long arm of intimidation and harassment,” Wang said.

The US said these kinds of actions have the potential to accelerate the closing of Hong Kong’s once open society. 

US department of state spokesperson Vedant Patel said the US is alarmed by the sweeping and vaguely defined provisions laid out in the legislation. 

“They use phrases such as external interference, which is incredibly vague. So we’re analyzing this legislation, and we are taking a look at what the potential risk could be to not just US citizens but other American interests that we might have,” Patel said. 

The UK said the legislation will have far-reaching implications for Hong Kong’s reputation as an international city founded on respect for the rule of law, the independence of its institutions, its high degree of autonomy and protection of the rights and freedoms afforded to all people living and working there. 

Raising the issue of  broad definitions of national security and external interference, foreign minister David Cameron said, “The overall impact of Hong Kong’s new national security law is that it will further damage the rights and freedoms enjoyed in the city.”

“I urge the Hong Kong authorities to respect the rights and freedoms enshrined in the Basic Law, uphold its high degree of autonomy and the rule of law and act in accordance with its international commitments and legal obligations,” he added. 

The European Union also expressed concerns about the new legislation’s potential impact on the rights and freedoms of the people of Hong Kong.

“The bill’s sweeping provisions and broad definitions, specifically in relation to foreign interference and state secrets, appear as particular concerns. The significantly increased penalties provided for in the Bill, its extraterritorial reach and its – at least partial – retroactive applicability are also deeply worrying,” Nabila Massrali, EU spokesperson for foreign affairs and security policy, said.

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