Hong Kong's national security law is finally here, and it could change the city forever


While officials have previously suggested that the sanctions under the law would be softer than they are in China, the maximum sentence given for each of those four main crimes: secession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with foreign forces, is the chain life.

The right to a jury trial can be suspended in certain circumstances, cases can be heard in secret, and foreign residents in Hong Kong can be deported if they are suspected of violating the law, regardless of conviction. National security law takes precedence over any existing Hong Kong law, in the event of conflict.

The law also extends Beijing's direct control over the city, establishing a new committee for national security that will include a Beijing-appointed adviser and an "Office to Safeguard National Security," directly under the Beijing government, which has broad powers. to prosecute Hong Kongers, he considered that he had committed particularly heinous crimes.

Officials from Hong Kong and Beijing argued that the law is necessary and behind schedule, and promised that it would only affect a small minority of Hong Kong people, while bringing "stability and prosperity" back to the city.

"The national security law is a crucial step in ending the chaos and violence that has occurred in recent months," city executive director Lam said on Wednesday. "It is a law that has been introduced to keep Hong Kong safe. The legislation is legal, constitutional and reasonable."

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam (C) speaks to guests after a flag-raising ceremony to mark early-morning China National Day celebrations in Hong Kong on July 1, 2020.

Cooling effect

Even before it went into effect, the law had begun to have a chilling effect, with multiple political parties dissolving, stores eliminating anti-government paraphernalia, and people eliminating old social media accounts and publications.

That is likely to accelerate, as crimes under the law are wide-ranging and far-reaching, with no certainty of what actions will be considered illegal until prosecutions begin.

For example, the crime of incitement, assistance or incitement to secession could cover most declarations related to Hong Kong's independence. In recent demonstrations, protesters could be regularly heard singing that this was "the only way out" and waving flags promoting separatism. The minimum punishment for such crimes is five years in prison.

At a Tuesday meeting of senior police commanders, they were told that anyone seen waving a flag for independence or singing in support of independence should be arrested, a police source told CNN. Furthermore, the source said that anyone who has searched and found that they have flags of independence in their possession will be arrested.

Subversion and terrorism are also defined particularly broadly, with the latter including "dangerous activities that seriously endanger public health, safety or protection" for the purpose of "intimidating the public to carry out a political agenda "

If applied widely, this could reclassify anti-government protests as the city saw last year, which often turned violent, with clashes between protesters and police, and publicly owned vandalism, such as terrorism, exactly as the protests were often described. in Chinese state media

In particular, the law penalizes "sabotage of means of transportation (and) transportation facilities" or "serious disruption or sabotage of electronic control systems" related to transportation, which could be interpreted as vandalism of subway or road and bus blocking.

The maximum punishment for serious terrorist offenses is life imprisonment, with a minimum sentence of 10 years. Those found guilty of related and less serious crimes can face a minimum of five years in prison.

Foreigners threatened

While the law's biggest impact will be in Hong Kongers, it also includes multiple provisions that could affect the way foreign entities, particularly the media and NGOs, operate in the city.

The law establishes that any person who "directly or indirectly receives instructions, control, financing or other type of support from a foreign country or an institution, organization or individual" could be guilty of a crime if he is carrying out certain actions considered hostile to national security. .

Those include lobbying for sanctions against Hong Kong or Chinese officials, such as the ones recently imposed by Washington on this same legislation, "undermining" the Hong Kong elections, "seriously disrupting the formulation and implementation of laws or policies" in the city, or "incite hatred among Hong Kong residents towards the Central People's Government by illegal means."

In China, people have been prosecuted for leaking "state secrets" to the media, governments and organizations abroad, something that the new Hong Kong law also penalizes, which could make the operation of journalists and NGOs much more difficult. foreigners in the city.

One of the tasks of the National Security Safeguard Office, which reports directly to Beijing, will also be the "management of (the) organs of foreign countries and international organizations in (Hong Kong), as well as non-governmental organizations and news agencies from foreign countries. "

Currently, Hong Kong has a generous visa policy for journalists, who are classified as regular foreign workers and are not subject to the strictest regulation seen in China. It's also easy for NGOs to operate in Hong Kong, with human rights organizations, labor groups and press freedom groups struggling to operate in China using the city as a base.

Non-permanent residents in Hong Kong can be expelled from the city, regardless of whether they are convicted, if they are suspected of breaking the law.

The flags of China (front) and Hong Kong are released during a flag-raising ceremony to mark early-morning China National Day celebrations in Hong Kong on July 1, 2020.

Judicial changes

One of the biggest controversies that led to the passage of the law was the creation of a new panel of judges dedicated to national security cases, who will be appointed directly by the Chief Executive.

Legal analysts have warned that this could undermine judicial independence by allowing the government to choose judges who are sympathetic to particular problems.

"A person will not be appointed as a judge to try a case related to a crime that endangers national security if he has made a statement or has behaved in any way that endangers national security," the law states.

He adds that jury trials can be suspended when deemed necessary, with cases judged by a panel of judges.

Beyond this, certain cases can also be directly handed over to the Chinese authorities for prosecution, with the Office of National Security Protection taking the lead, enforcing Chinese law and legal norms.

The office "will initiate an investigation into the case, the Supreme People's Procuratorate will appoint a prosecutorial body to prosecute it, and the Supreme People's Court will appoint a court to try it," the law says.

In exercising this power, members of the Bureau "shall not be subject to the jurisdiction of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region," and the city police are obliged to assist in their duties and to prevent anyone from obstructing them.

It is unclear whether such cases will be transferred to the mainland or whether they will be prosecuted in Hong Kong by Chinese prosecutors. The suggestion of extradition to China is what started the massive anti-government protests last year.

China has a notoriously high conviction rate, especially in national security cases, and is regularly criticized for politicized prosecutions in which defendants are denied access to lawyers.

What comes next?

For weeks, Hong Kong officials and the Beijing central government have been reassuring members of the public that the law will be selectively enforced and will only affect a small number of people.

Following its adoption on Tuesday, a Hong Kong government spokesperson reiterated that the law "targets an extremely small minority of criminals, while life and property, as well as various legitimate basic rights and freedoms enjoyed by the overwhelming majority citizens will be protected. "

"There is nothing for Hong Kong citizens to worry about in exercising these legitimate rights," he added.

It remains to be seen if this is true, and may not be known for months, until the first legal prosecutions begin. But the chilling effect already seen this week suggests that the repercussions of the law will extend far beyond individual cases.

Hong Kong has long been known as a "city of protest," with a vibrant opposition movement, unshackled media, and dynamic public discourse. National security law would seem to target all of this, and it could reshape the city forever.


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