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Hong Kong passes sweeping Article 23 security law

Hong Kong lawmakers have fast-tracked and passed a new security law, expanding on the already vague, draconian and wide-ranging penalties that have silenced almost all forms of public dissent and transformed institutions in the Asian financial hub.

On Tuesday, the city’s legislature, stacked with pro-Beijing lawmakers, passed a sweeping package of laws targeting treason, espionage, theft of state secrets, sedition and foreign interference, with sentences of up to life imprisonment. The legislation, linked to Article 23 of Hong Kong’s Basic Law, is meant to target “domestic” threats to security.

Article 23 legislation was first proposed and withdrawn after mass protests more than 20 years ago. It took less than two months to be approved this time, with no opposition in Hong Kong’s legislature. Lawmakers debating the legislation Tuesday overwhelmingly supported its passage, describing it as a historic “milestone” and a “responsibility.”

Speaking to lawmakers after the vote, Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee said: “This is a historic moment for Hong Kong; we’ve waited for 26 years, eight months and 19 days for today. This is our moment to be proud.”

“We can effectively guard against ‘color revolution’ and also those advocating Hong Kong independence,” Lee said, referring to a wave of popular revolts in Eastern Europe in the 2000s and Hong Kong’s own demonstrations in 2019 that authorities all blame on Western forces.

Both the laws themselves and the way they were passed demonstrate how Hong Kong is being further remade in mainland China’s image, as Chinese leader Xi Jinping has made national security the government’s priority. The legislation also risks further eroding Hong Kong’s status as a financial center, with businesses particularly worried about vague definitions of state secrets.

After the law’s passage on Tuesday, the Chinese Commissioner’s Office of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs congratulated the Hong Kong government and said the law opened a new chapter of “patriots governing Hong Kong.”

Hong Kong had already been transformed in recent years by a national security law imposed by Beijing in 2020 after months of mass demonstrations in 2019 against China’s tightening control over the city.

That law led to the shuttering of civil-society groups and news outlets, the arrest of more than 200 people — many of them jailed — and an exodus of Hong Kongers. All who have been charged under the security law have been convicted.

This year, Hong Kong lawmakers moved unusually quickly to pass the long overdue Article 23 security law by holding marathon committee sessions. Lee reportedly left China’s politically important legislative meeting in Beijing early, in order to return to the city to push through the legislation.

“It was meant to cut short the risk of prolonged debate leading to a mobilization of international opposition,” said ​​​​Dominic Chiu, senior analyst for China and Northeast Asia for Eurasia Group. “This was therefore likely a deliberate effort to catch foreign observers of Article 23 off guard by minimizing time for external scrutiny and criticism.”

According to the chief executive, the new Article 23 law is meant to complement the existing national security apparatus and will be enacted on Saturday.

Chris Tang, Hong Kong’s security chief, said during the legislative debate Tuesday that the two laws “will form a complete legal system to safeguard national security.”

“Since our reunification 26 years ago, there’s finally a complete overhaul of the legal system to safeguard national security,” he said.

Hong Kong, a former British colony, was handed over to Chinese control in 1997 under a framework known as “one country, two systems” that granted it some autonomy, including a thriving civil society, an independent press and a business environment free from government interference.

“With this draconian legislation, the Hong Kong government has delivered another crushing blow to human rights in the city,” said Amnesty International’s China director, Sarah Brooks. “The authorities have enacted this law in the blink of an eye, killing off any remaining shred of hope that public outcry could counter its most destructive elements.”

This Article 23 security law has loomed over the city’s 7.4 million residents for years. Under Hong Kong’s Basic Law, which has governed the city’s relationship with Beijing since 1997, Hong Kong is required to enact national security legislation. A first attempt to introduce the law in 2003 prompted half a million people to protest in the streets, forcing authorities to withdraw the legislation.

This time, the legislation was processed “at full speed,” according to Lee. With dissent muted under the Beijing-drafted 2020 national security law, it has met little resistance. During a second reading of the draft legislation Tuesday, lawmakers pledged their support for the measure one after another.

Connie Lam said she would endorse the law, “even at the cost of having her body smashed into pieces.” Another lawmaker, Dennis Leung, said the law was the “greatest blessing” for Hong Kongers.

The Hong Kong government said 98.6 percent of the comments it received over a one-month public consultation period that ended last week were positive.

Still, some groups have registered their opposition. Business and legal groups say the law, in its vagueness, will detract from the city’s appeal as a financial hub safe for investment. The Law Society of Hong Kong said in its comments on the draft legislation that the commercial sector “requires certainty in the business environment it is operating in.”

The Hong Kong Journalists Association said the law will further restrict the media environment, in which self-censorship has become commonplace since the 2020 national security law.

Hong Kong media mogul Jimmy Lai, publisher of the now-shuttered Apple Daily, is facing trial under the 2020 law.

Such measures will “seriously deepen the chilling effect that has already occurred, and turn Hong Kong into a city with one voice,” the journalists’ group said in a statement.

Rights advocates say the law’s broad definition of the crime of external interference could criminalize a broad range of interactions with foreign governments and organizations. Hong Kong and mainland Chinese authorities have long blamed the wave of protests in 2019 on foreign actors.

“The evil nature of anti-China and anti-Hong Kong forces have been entrenched in Hong Kong for a long time … there are still ‘worms’ ready to move and waiting to cause chaos,” China’s Ministry of State Security said in a statement this month.

Shibani Mahtani in Singapore and Vic Chiang in Taipei, Taiwan, contributed to this report

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