Beijing has imposed a controversial national security law on Hong Kong, giving the Chinese government sweeping powers over the semi-autonomous territory in a move critics say will crush its freedoms.
Late on Tuesday, China unveiled the full text of the anti-sedition law which targets the crimes of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces, with penalties as severe as life in prison.
The law was published just after it went into effect at 11pm on Tuesday. The implementation of the law comes less than 40 days after Beijing stunned residents and the international community with its plan to impose the law on Hong Kong, bypassing the city’s own legislature, as a way to halt anti-government and pro-democracy protests that have been running for the last year.
Legal experts and critics said the law was overarching both in the definition of the crimes as well as its scope. It applies to Hong Kong permanent residents as well as non-residents, and those outside of Hong Kong who violate the law.
“It is worse than one could have expected,” said Eric Cheung, a principal lecturer of law at the University of Hong Kong. “What constitutes ‘endangering national security’? It’s very broad. Basically, anything can amount to national security threats.
“No one will feel safe, even foreigners. Anyone with permanent residence, irrespective of their nationality, could be prosecuted,” he said.
At the same time, the law appears to be tailored to target the activities of protesters and their supporters. The crime of subversion includes anyone who “seriously interferes, obstructs or destroys” the functions or facilities of the Chinese or Hong Kong governments. Last year, protesters vandalised the Hong Kong legislature in a major escalation of the protest movement.
Terrorism, broadly defined as activities to “achieve political ends”, would include the use of molotov cocktails or the destruction of the public transit system, both of which were common last year.
Antony Daparin, a Hong Kong-based writer and lawyer, said: “It is very wide-ranging and seems specifically tailored to catch many of the activities engaged in during last year’s protests, both by ‘radical’ protesters and the many moderates who supported them in different ways.”
The crime of collusion with foreign forces to endanger national security includes those who “through various illegal ways” lead Hong Kong residents to “hate” the central government or local Hong Kong government.
“What is troubling is how broad and malleable their wording is,” said Eva Pils, a professor of law at King’s College London who focuses on human rights in China. “Under this law, could mere criticism of the central party state be treated as subversion or inciting subversion?”
Key elements of the law include:
Among the most serious penalties, between 10 years to life in prison for suspects charged as leaders or “core members” of committed crimes.
Beijing setting up a national security agency in Hong Kong to “guide” the implementation of the law. Mainland officers will be given immunity from local law.
The law being implemented by Hong Kong police and courts, but with three scenarios where Beijing can exercise jurisdiction over national security cases: those involving “complex situations of foreign interference extraterritorial forces” difficult for the Hong Kong government to oversee; “serious circumstances” where the Hong Kong government cannot effectively enforce the law; and situations where China faces “grave and real” threats.
Trial without jury, as granted by Hong Kong’s secretary of justice, in cases related to national security that require the protection of “national secrets” or “foreign factors”.
Allowing the press and public to be barred from observing the proceedings of some trials that involve “state secrets” or risks to public order. Secret, closed-door trials are often used in mainland China in cases involving political dissidents.
Hong Kong police being allowed to take “various measures” to investigate national security crimes, including intercepting communications, covert surveillance, and requesting information from service providers and from overseas political organisations and authorities.
Allowing the national security agency in Hong Kong, overseen by Beijing, to “strengthen” the management of foreign non-governmental organisations and news agencies.
The law comes on the eve of Hong Kong’s annual 1 July protest march, which coincides with the anniversary of the former British colony’s handover to Chinese control. Police have banned the event but activists have called for people to rally, as thousands did in contravention of a ban on marking the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre on 4 June.
Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, said in a statement after the law’s passage that she was confident that after it was implemented “the social unrest which has troubled Hong Kong people for nearly a year will be eased and stability will be restored”.
A statement from the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs office of China’s state council said: “For the small minority of people who endanger national security, this law is a sword hanging over their heads.”
Critics say the law marks Beijing’s full takeover of Hong Kong, which was promised 50 years of a “high degree of autonomy” after the 1997 handover. In the decades since, Hong Kong’s free press, independent courts and legislature, as well as its traditions of protests and marches, have made the city a haven for the civil liberties not enjoyed across the border.
The EU council president, Charles Michel, told reporters the law risked “seriously undermining the high degree of autonomy of Hong Kong” as well as the independence of its judiciary and the rule of law. “We deplore the decision,” he said.
“From now on Hong Kong enters a new era of reign of terror,” the activist Joshua Wong wrote on Twitter. “However, even under … China’s direct authoritarian rule Hong Kongers will continue to fight … When justice fails, our fight goes on,” he said.