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Democracy No More: Understanding the Implications of China’s New National Security Law on Hong Kong

On June 30, China passed a national security law criminalizing seditious activities in Hong Kong with a maximum penalty of life in prison. The passage of the legislation came on the anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover to China from Britain and after a year of pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.

  • The implications of the bill for Hong Kong autonomy and the rights of Hong Kong citizens have prompted international scrutiny.

The Takeaway: China’s Hong Kong national security law violates legislated Hong Kong autonomy and the civil rights of its residents.

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The Hong Kong security law punishes four main offences: secession, subversion of state power, terrorism, and foreign collusion. It empowers China to set up a national security agency in Hong Kong staffed with its own personnel who are not bound by local laws. Offenders face a maximum sentence of life in prison.

  • A senior Chinese official announced at a press briefing following the ceremony that Hong Kong suspects arrested under the law could be tried in mainland China under Chinese law.
  • Hong Kong police were later briefed that flags, banners, and advocacy of independence or liberation from China are also banned.
  • A full draft of the law was not made available before it passed through the highest legislative approval, a move perceived to reduce opportunities for dissent and public discussion.

Chinese officials claim that the law will only target “an extremely small minority of illegal and criminal acts” and that the “basic rights and freedoms of the overwhelming majority of citizens will be protected.

But critics say this law targets activists by criminalizing civil disobedience and criticism of the Chinese government. It also permits China to circumvent Hong Kong’s legislative procedure.

  • Sophie Richardson, the China director at Human Rights Watch, said the law is “devastating in that it appears to have no bounds […] Hong Kong activists, accustomed to operating in a mostly rights-respecting environment, now face a frightening void.”
  • Pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong tweeted that the law would turn Hong Kong into a secret police state and put Hong Kong protestors at risk of extradition to Chinese courts and life sentences.
  • Others have pointed out that the law violates the “one country, two systems” principle established in the 1997 British-Chinese handover.

China-Hong Kong Relations Explained

Hong Kong is supposed to have a high degree of autonomy under the “one country, two systems” principle.

  • This principle was established in 1997 under a legally binding Joint Declaration when Hong Kong was handed over from the UK to China.
  • In addition to having a separate economic and governance system, certain civic rights are protected in Hong Kong. These include freedom of assembly and speech, an independent judiciary, and democratic rights.
    • The Hong Kong government was also mandated to enact a national security law which would allow extradition to mainland China, but this failed due to its unpopularity.
  • Tensions escalated when last year, a now-suspended extradition bill prompted mass protests that evolved into a broader anti-China and pro-democracy movement.
    • In June, Hong Kong passed a bill making it illegal to insult or commercially misuse China’s national anthem.

Hong Kong’s Response

  • Thousands of Hong Kong protestors have defied the sedition ban. Around 370 arrests were made on the first day of the new security law.
  • Prominent pro-democracy group Demosisto disaffiliated after the resignation of key members Joshua Wong, Nathan Law, Agnes Chow, and Jeffrey Ngo, following the passage of the law. Pro-independence groups Hong Kong National Front and Studentlocalism also announced they would disband local members, but their overseas divisions will remain in operation.
    • Wong cited concerns over personal safety, political imprisonment, and extradition to China as reasons for stepping down.

International Responses

  • Canada updated its travel advice for Hong Kong stating Canadians in Hong Kong “may be at an increased risk of arbitrary detention on national security grounds and possible extradition to mainland China.”
  • UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson stated he was “deeply concerned” with the passage of the legislation and would investigate whether it constitutes a breach of the Joint Declaration. UK administration also confirmed it would open a new path to citizenship for Hong Kong’s British National Overseas passport holders to settle in the UK.
  • US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo responded to the legislation with the threat that the US “will not stand idly by.” Hong Kong currently enjoys special trading privileges with the US, which may be withdrawn should its autonomy remain compromised. 
  • Taiwan, a self-governing island engaged in a dispute for sovereignty from China, opened an office in Taipei to support people fleeing Hong Kong.

The Bottom Line: The passage of the Chinese national security law is a clear violation of mandated Hong Kong autonomy and catalyzes the erosion of civil liberties in the territory. It constitutes an attempt to crack down on the pro-democracy protests and circumvent protections for civil liberties in Hong Kong.

  • China’s forceful expansion of power invites international condemnation and may come at a heavy economic and political cost.
  • Meanwhile, the safety and rights of Hong Kong activists remain uncertain.