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Hong Kong has new security law: why China’s imposed rules for the territory raise concern

China passed a controversial security law that gives it new powers over Hong Kong, deepening fears for the region’s freedom, the BBC learns.

The move comes after protests last year – triggered by another law – ended up evolving into a pro-democracy movement.

Critics say this new law will undermine Hong Kong’s judicial independence and put an end to the region’s rights and freedoms that do not exist in mainland China.

What do we know about the law and what do people fear most?

What is the law?

The bill had not been released before it was enacted, which means that people in the city will not have seen in advance details of the measures they will now have to comply with.

China has not officially confirmed approval of the law, but the BBC found it passed unanimously at a session of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress in Beijing.

Activists urged millions to take to the streets to protest the law - Reuters - Reuters
Activists urged millions to take to the streets to protest the law Image: Reuters

The expectation is that it will be added to the Hong Kong statute books later this Tuesday, the day before the 23rd anniversary of the transfer of the region from Great Britain to China – a date usually marked on the territory by pro-democracy protests .

Hong Kong lawmakers had been trying for some time to pass a security law, but this was never possible because of the unpopularity of the issue among the local population. So China has taken on the task of drafting legislation to deal with what it sees as serious challenges to its authority.

Details are scarce – but concerns are many. We know that the law would make any act of:

  • Secession – break with the country
  • Subversion – undermining central government power or authority
  • Terrorism – using violence or intimidation against people
  • Collusion with foreign or external forces

One aspect that caused particular concern is the suggestion that China may establish institutions in Hong Kong that are responsible – for the defense of national security.

This means that China could potentially have its own law enforcement agencies in Hong Kong, alongside law enforcement agencies in the region itself.

Parliamentarian is detained by guards at the Hong Kong Legislative Council during a conflict over a PL - Getty Images - Getty Images
Parliamentarian is detained by guards at the Hong Kong Legislative Council during a conflict over a PL Image: Getty Images

Why did China do this?

Hong Kong was returned to China under British control in 1997, but under a single agreement – a mini-constitution called the Basic Law and the so-called “one country, two systems” principle.

The rules should protect certain Hong Kong freedoms: freedom of assembly and expression, an independent judiciary and some democratic rights – freedoms that no other part of mainland China has.

Under the same agreement, Hong Kong would have to pass its own national security laws, which is set out in Article 23 of the Basic Law.

Pro-democracy protesters call for independence for the region - ISAAC LAWRENCE / AFP - ISAAC LAWRENCE / AFP
Pro-democracy protesters call for independence for the region Image: ISAAC LAWRENCE / AFP

But his unpopularity means that it was never done – the government tried in 2003, but had to back down after 500,000 people took to the streets.

In the past year, however, constant protests against an extradition law have turned violent and evolved into a broader anti-China and pro-democracy movement.

China does not want to see this happen again.

What could this do in Hong Kong?

The bill was not made public. Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam says she has not seen the full text. But some details are already known.

  • Beijing will establish a national security office in Hong Kong, which will collect information and “deal with crimes” against national security. That office may send some cases to be tried in mainland China, but Beijing said it would only have that power over a “small number” of cases.

  • Hong Kong will have to establish its own national security commission to enforce the laws, with a consultant appointed by Beijing
  • The Hong Kong Chief Executive will have the power to appoint judges to hear national security cases, raising fears about judicial autonomy
  • The prison sentence for national security violations should range from five to 10 years, according to Tam Yiu-chung, the only Hong Kong delegate on the Chinese committee that drafted the law.
  • Quite important: Beijing will have power over how the law is to be interpreted, not Hong Kong’s judicial or political bodies. If the law conflicts with any Hong Kong law, the Beijing law will take precedence

The law is likely to pass on June 30, when the China Standing Committee meets to vote on new laws. Hong Kong officials have said it will take effect immediately.

Zhang Yesui, spokesman for the National People's Congress, in session - AFP - AFP
Zhang Yesui, spokesman for the National People’s Congress, in session Image: AFP

What do people in Hong Kong fear?

Beijing says Hong Kong must respect and protect rights and freedoms while protecting national security – but many fear Hong Kong’s loss of freedoms under this law.

“It is clear that the law will have a severe impact on the freedom of expression, if not the personal safety, of the people of Hong Kong,” says Professor Johannes Chan, a law expert at the University of Hong Kong.

There are reports of people deleting posts from the Facebook and concerns that candidates who oppose national security law will be disqualified from running for election.

Many also fear that Hong Kong’s judicial independence will be eroded and its judicial system will increasingly resemble that of mainland China. The city is the only common law jurisdiction in China.

“In effect, they are imposing the criminal system of the People’s Republic of China on Hong Kong’s common law system, leaving them with complete discretion to decide who should fit into which system,” says Professor Chan.

Some pro-democracy activists, like Joshua Wong, have been lobbying foreign governments to help their cause. Such campaigns may become a crime in the future. Many are also afraid that the law will be retroactive.

People also fear that a threat to Hong Kong’s freedoms could affect its attractiveness as a commercial and economic powerhouse.

Can China just push the legislation?

Indeed, this is what is happening.

The Basic Law says that Chinese laws cannot be applied in Hong Kong, unless they are listed in a section called Annex III; there are already some listed there, mainly rules without controversy and related to foreign policy.

These laws can be introduced by decree – meaning that they override the parliament in the region.

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam has said she will cooperate with China to “complete the legislation as quickly as possible”.

Critics say this amounts to a violation of the “one country, two systems” principle, which is so important for Hong Kong.

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