Hong Kong National Security Law: What You Need to Know
Matt Shaw
12 Jul

The new law could crush Hong Kong's fight for freedom. Image by BRHK via Flickr. Used with kind permission.

After years of protests amid growing tensions with mainland China, Hong Kong must now live under the shadow of a law that threatens to wipe out its independence entirely.

The new national security law (NSL) came into effect on 30 June, employing vague language and harsh punishments in pursuit of quelling unrest.

The Locus examined the law and spoke to experts to analyse the effect it may have on Hong Kong and its hope for freedom.

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Broad powers, severe punishments

The national security law is split into four main sections, each targeting a specific offence: secession (breaking away from China), subversion (undermining China’s authority), terrorist activities and foreign collusion.

Experts and human rights organisations have raised concerns that the labels will be applied sweepingly in order to stifle freedom of speech and political dissent.

In previous protests, activists have damaged government buildings and occupied the airport.

Doing so now could be punishable with life imprisonment for subversion or terrorism, respectively.

Other, more minor offences, still carry punishments of three to ten years.

The law creates several authorities to oversee different aspects of Hong Kong, all of which are controlled by the mainland and not subject to local jurisdiction, in a strategy engineered to give Beijing near-complete control over the territory, activists say.

“It's breathtaking how much power they give to officials to do whatever they want,” said Michael Davis, a senior research scholar at the Weatherhead East Asian Institute and a former professor at the University of Hong Kong’s Faculty of Law.

Part of this power lies in the vague language used throughout the law, giving Beijing the ability to widely interpret what constitutes each offence.

The law also allows Beijing to look further than the walls of Hong Kong, with Article 38 setting the NSL’s scope to anybody, whether a resident of Hong Kong or not, in any part of the world.

Though Zhang Xiaoming, deputy director of the Chinese government’s office for Hong Kong, described the law as targeting “a tiny number of criminals who seriously endanger national security”, experts say the language used in the legislation does anything but.

“The net result of all of this is that anyone who commits an act that falls afoul of these extremely vague provisions is at risk of indefinite detention, rendition to the mainland for trial and indeed much worse, the moment they set foot in Hong Kong,” said Alvin Cheung, a non-resident affiliated scholar of New York University School of Law’s U.S.-Asia Law Institute.

The Supreme Court of Hong Kong. Image by Wikipedia user Wpcpey, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

The end of Hong Kong’s independent judiciary

Until recently, Hong Kong’s legal system was separate from the mainland.

This shielded those accused of a crime in Hong Kong from China’s harsher system which pays less attention to human rights, as well as acting as a transparent barrier between the two territories.

Under the new national security law, Beijing has granted itself far-reaching abilities to oversee and take control of national security cases in Hong Kong.

Defendants can be transported to the mainland to stand trial and, in certain circumstances, the proceedings may take place behind closed doors and without a jury.

“What this means for the Hong Kong legal system […] is that whenever there is anything that can conceivably be framed as a matter of national security, it will be taken outside of the Hong Kong legal system,” said Mr Cheung.


The law forces Hong Kong into global isolation

In the past, activists have communicated with other countries, particularly the U.S., asking for assistance in their cause.

However, doing so now could be interpreted as foreign collusion, for which a defendant could be given a sentence of up to ten years in prison, or life imprisonment for “grave” offences.

Here, Beijing appears to target the foreign involvement it has long touted as the cause of the unrest in Hong Kong.

“They could reach locals who testify in Congress and, we fear, locals who even testify before international human rights bodies like the Human Rights Committee or the Human Rights Council - things that governments actually commit to allowing their citizens to do,” said Mr Davis.

The future of Hong Kong is uncertain. Image by Jimmy Chan via Pexels.

Hong Kong could change dramatically

One of the reasons Hong Kong has seen such dramatic growth in recent history is because of its ties to - but crucial separation from - China.

As businesses and countries come to terms with the new circumstances, Hong Kong may lose its appeal to the global markets, as Beijing enforces strict regulation and surveillance.

Already, the U.S., which had a special arrangement with Hong Kong, has deemed the region to no longer be sufficiently autonomous.

In a surprising move, TikTok, the video-sharing social network owned by Beijing-based ByteDance, pulled its app from Hong Kong mobile stores.

Other technology companies have criticised the law and paused their compliance with Hong Kong data requests.

Though it’s not possible to say whether China intended for Hong Kong to retain its image of independence for trade purposes, recent events have made it increasingly clear that Hong Kong could look very different in the future.

“It's very possibly the complete end of Hong Kong's freedom,” said Mr Davis, “Because there is, in this law, a sufficient scope of authority […] that freedom can basically be taken away entirely.”

Protesters take cover under umbrellas. This simple tactic protects against pepper spray, tear gas and rubber bullets, as well as shielding the identity of demonstrators. Image by Jonathan van Smit, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

What’s the background to the national security law?

In 2019, large-scale protests broke out following the proposal of a bill that would have allowed criminal suspects in Hong Kong to be sent to the mainland for trial.

At the time, Hong Kong’s legal system was supposed to be independent of Beijing’s, which is far harsher and more opaque, with a conviction rate in excess of 99%.

Initially, Beijing’s response to the demonstrations was carried out through Hong Kong’s government, in what manifested itself as widespread police brutality against demonstrators, but this was unsuccessful in stemming the tide of unrest.

“When the protests didn't just deflate and disappear, that's when you started to see, I think, more of the presence of Beijing creeping in,” said Margaret Lewis, a law professor at Seton Hall University.

Under the national security law, those accused of crimes against national security can now be transported to the mainland, with the possibility of closed-door trials.


How did Hong Kong get here?

Hong Kong has long been caught between powers.

During the first Opium War (1839–42), the U.K. acquired Hong Kong through a treaty with China, later leasing it for 99 years.

However, during the 1970s, as Hong Kong thrived, it became clear that discussions would need to take place about the territory’s future.

Finally, in 1997, Hong Kong was returned to China, as part of an agreement intended to ensure that Hong Kong’s legal autonomy, as well as the freedoms its citizens enjoyed, would be upheld.

The agreement was supposed to last for 50 years, until 2047, but it didn’t take very long for the people of Hong Kong to raise issues with Beijing’s behaviour.

“What has happened since 1997 has been an initially slow but accelerating process by which the guarantees and the joint declaration were undercut,” said Mr Cheung.

OPINION
Hong Kong National Security Law: What You Need to Know
Matt Shaw
12 Jul

The new law could crush Hong Kong's fight for freedom. Image by BRHK via Flickr. Used with kind permission.

After years of protests amid growing tensions with mainland China, Hong Kong must now live under the shadow of a law that threatens to wipe out its independence entirely.

The new national security law (NSL) came into effect on 30 June, employing vague language and harsh punishments in pursuit of quelling unrest.

The Locus examined the law and spoke to experts to analyse the effect it may have on Hong Kong and its hope for freedom.

Get The Locus sent straight to your inbox
Thanks for subscribing to The Locus!
Something went wrong. Sorry about that.

Broad powers, severe punishments

The national security law is split into four main sections, each targeting a specific offence: secession (breaking away from China), subversion (undermining China’s authority), terrorist activities and foreign collusion.

Experts and human rights organisations have raised concerns that the labels will be applied sweepingly in order to stifle freedom of speech and political dissent.

In previous protests, activists have damaged government buildings and occupied the airport.

Doing so now could be punishable with life imprisonment for subversion or terrorism, respectively.

Other, more minor offences, still carry punishments of three to ten years.

The law creates several authorities to oversee different aspects of Hong Kong, all of which are controlled by the mainland and not subject to local jurisdiction, in a strategy engineered to give Beijing near-complete control over the territory, activists say.

“It's breathtaking how much power they give to officials to do whatever they want,” said Michael Davis, a senior research scholar at the Weatherhead East Asian Institute and a former professor at the University of Hong Kong’s Faculty of Law.

Part of this power lies in the vague language used throughout the law, giving Beijing the ability to widely interpret what constitutes each offence.

The law also allows Beijing to look further than the walls of Hong Kong, with Article 38 setting the NSL’s scope to anybody, whether a resident of Hong Kong or not, in any part of the world.

Though Zhang Xiaoming, deputy director of the Chinese government’s office for Hong Kong, described the law as targeting “a tiny number of criminals who seriously endanger national security”, experts say the language used in the legislation does anything but.

“The net result of all of this is that anyone who commits an act that falls afoul of these extremely vague provisions is at risk of indefinite detention, rendition to the mainland for trial and indeed much worse, the moment they set foot in Hong Kong,” said Alvin Cheung, a non-resident affiliated scholar of New York University School of Law’s U.S.-Asia Law Institute.

The Supreme Court of Hong Kong. Image by Wikipedia user Wpcpey, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

The end of Hong Kong’s independent judiciary

Until recently, Hong Kong’s legal system was separate from the mainland.

This shielded those accused of a crime in Hong Kong from China’s harsher system which pays less attention to human rights, as well as acting as a transparent barrier between the two territories.

Under the new national security law, Beijing has granted itself far-reaching abilities to oversee and take control of national security cases in Hong Kong.

Defendants can be transported to the mainland to stand trial and, in certain circumstances, the proceedings may take place behind closed doors and without a jury.

“What this means for the Hong Kong legal system […] is that whenever there is anything that can conceivably be framed as a matter of national security, it will be taken outside of the Hong Kong legal system,” said Mr Cheung.


The law forces Hong Kong into global isolation

In the past, activists have communicated with other countries, particularly the U.S., asking for assistance in their cause.

However, doing so now could be interpreted as foreign collusion, for which a defendant could be given a sentence of up to ten years in prison, or life imprisonment for “grave” offences.

Here, Beijing appears to target the foreign involvement it has long touted as the cause of the unrest in Hong Kong.

“They could reach locals who testify in Congress and, we fear, locals who even testify before international human rights bodies like the Human Rights Committee or the Human Rights Council - things that governments actually commit to allowing their citizens to do,” said Mr Davis.

The future of Hong Kong is uncertain. Image by Jimmy Chan via Pexels.

Hong Kong could change dramatically

One of the reasons Hong Kong has seen such dramatic growth in recent history is because of its ties to - but crucial separation from - China.

As businesses and countries come to terms with the new circumstances, Hong Kong may lose its appeal to the global markets, as Beijing enforces strict regulation and surveillance.

Already, the U.S., which had a special arrangement with Hong Kong, has deemed the region to no longer be sufficiently autonomous.

In a surprising move, TikTok, the video-sharing social network owned by Beijing-based ByteDance, pulled its app from Hong Kong mobile stores.

Other technology companies have criticised the law and paused their compliance with Hong Kong data requests.

Though it’s not possible to say whether China intended for Hong Kong to retain its image of independence for trade purposes, recent events have made it increasingly clear that Hong Kong could look very different in the future.

“It's very possibly the complete end of Hong Kong's freedom,” said Mr Davis, “Because there is, in this law, a sufficient scope of authority […] that freedom can basically be taken away entirely.”

Protesters take cover under umbrellas. This simple tactic protects against pepper spray, tear gas and rubber bullets, as well as shielding the identity of demonstrators. Image by Jonathan van Smit, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

What’s the background to the national security law?

In 2019, large-scale protests broke out following the proposal of a bill that would have allowed criminal suspects in Hong Kong to be sent to the mainland for trial.

At the time, Hong Kong’s legal system was supposed to be independent of Beijing’s, which is far harsher and more opaque, with a conviction rate in excess of 99%.

Initially, Beijing’s response to the demonstrations was carried out through Hong Kong’s government, in what manifested itself as widespread police brutality against demonstrators, but this was unsuccessful in stemming the tide of unrest.

“When the protests didn't just deflate and disappear, that's when you started to see, I think, more of the presence of Beijing creeping in,” said Margaret Lewis, a law professor at Seton Hall University.

Under the national security law, those accused of crimes against national security can now be transported to the mainland, with the possibility of closed-door trials.


How did Hong Kong get here?

Hong Kong has long been caught between powers.

During the first Opium War (1839–42), the U.K. acquired Hong Kong through a treaty with China, later leasing it for 99 years.

However, during the 1970s, as Hong Kong thrived, it became clear that discussions would need to take place about the territory’s future.

Finally, in 1997, Hong Kong was returned to China, as part of an agreement intended to ensure that Hong Kong’s legal autonomy, as well as the freedoms its citizens enjoyed, would be upheld.

The agreement was supposed to last for 50 years, until 2047, but it didn’t take very long for the people of Hong Kong to raise issues with Beijing’s behaviour.

“What has happened since 1997 has been an initially slow but accelerating process by which the guarantees and the joint declaration were undercut,” said Mr Cheung.

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