Hong Kong will enact a new security law aimed at curbing foreign influence and expanding the definition of crimes such as theft of state secrets and treason, authorities announced on Tuesday (30). The measure should further silence dissenting voices in Chinese territory.
The proposed law would establish five main areas of crime: treason, insurrection, theft of state secrets, sabotage and external interference. Some of the definitions would echo the way the Chinese regime treats these crimes on the mainland.
“Foreign intelligence organizations, the CIA and British agencies, have publicly stated that they are working very hard against China and Hong Kong,” the city’s leader, John Lee, said at a news conference. Domestically, the city still faces “the seeds of social unrest,” he continued.
The law will exist “to protect us from attacks by foreign forces and foreign countries,” Lee said.
The proposal, known as Article 23, has long been a point of political tension in Hong Kong, a former British colony that was promised the maintenance of certain freedoms when it returned to Chinese control in 1997.
The government first tried to enact it in 2003, but backed off after large protests by residents who feared it would limit civil liberties. Since then, successive leaders have postponed attempts to revive the legislation, required by the local constitution, for fear of triggering more negative reactions.
But in 2020, the Chinese central government imposed its own national security law on Hong Kong, following months of fierce street protests against Beijing’s growing influence in the city. Over the past three years, authorities have used this law to virtually eliminate the city’s political opposition, reshape its elections, and severely limit the media and free speech.
Hong Kong officials say the new law will complement Beijing’s law and eliminate what Lee said are hostile forces “still lurking in our society.” Critics say it will deepen the destruction of human rights in the city.
“The aim is to have full control of Hong Kong’s activities, including freedom of expression,” said Patrick Poon, a visiting researcher at the University of Tokyo who is Hong Kong and studies freedom of expression in Hong Kong and China. “It’s something we already expected to happen in 2003, and that’s why half a million people took to the streets to try to stop it.”
The government has not released the full text of the proposed law. Instead, it published an extensive “public consultation document”, which presented justifications for the law and general proposals for its content. He said residents could submit comments on the document over the next month.
But many of the proposals would create a future in which criticism of policies like this would be increasingly risky.
For example, the new offense of “external interference” would make it a crime to collaborate with an “external force” to influence “the formulation or execution of any policy or measure.” External forces, the proposal says, could include foreign governments or political organizations.
The state secrets provision also explicitly references legislative language in mainland China that gives authorities broad power to classify critical voices as a threat to national security. Last year, Beijing introduced a revised counterintelligence law that expanded the category of what constitutes espionage; In recent months, China’s state security agency has suggested that negative comments about the country’s economy could be a threat to national security.
Hong Kong’s proposed law would expand the potential scope of state secrets to potentially include anything related to “major political decisions”, “economic and social development” or “relationship between central authorities” and the Hong Kong government.
“It’s very arbitrary and broad,” Poon said, particularly highlighting the vague definitions used to describe state secrets and interference.
Officials say the new law is necessary, even after Beijing enacted its own security legislation, because external threats had not been eradicated. The administration’s proposal listed nine perceived dangers to national security, including “incitement to public hatred” against the state and “barbaric and gross interference” by foreign governments.
Officials in Hong Kong and Beijing have vehemently denied that they are infringing on civil liberties, arguing that countries that have criticized security legislation, including the United States, also have national security laws.
He said he would set up a “rebuttal team” to counter criticism of the law. The government would also contact foreign consulates and chambers of commerce to explain how the law would benefit businesses, Lee said.
“I want the government to be up and running to explain what we are doing here, to tell the world that we are just protecting ourselves from their attacks,” he said. “Don’t attack us.”