Hong Kong passes tough security law critics say threatens city's freedoms

Hong Kong security chief Chris Tang poses for photos with lawmakers as they hold drafts of the Safeguarding National Security Bill, also referred to as Basic Law Article 23.
Hong Kong security chief Chris Tang poses for photos with lawmakers as they hold drafts of the Safeguarding National Security Bill, also referred to as Basic Law Article 23. Photo credit: Reuters

Hong Kong lawmakers on Tuesday unanimously passed a new national security bill within a fortnight of it being tabled, fast-tracking a major piece of legislation that critics say further threatens the China-ruled city's freedoms.

The package, known as Article 23, punishes offences including treason, sabotage, sedition, the theft of state secrets, external interference and espionage with sentences ranging from several years to life imprisonment.

Hong Kong's leader John Lee said the law would come into effect on Saturday and called it a "historic moment for Hong Kong".

The new slate of laws comes on top of an earlier, China-imposed national security law that has been used to jail pro-democracy activists and triggered sanctions from the United States, including against Lee.

Some lawmakers, however, shrugged off the risk of further sanctions and possible credit rating downgrades.

"We have to legislate for the security of our country and Hong Kong. Whatever comes, will come. We don't mind," said the head of the legislature, Andrew Leung.

Hong Kong's Legislative Council, stacked with pro-Beijing loyalists, was first presented with the bill on March 8 following a month-long public consultation.

The new law will have extraterritorial effect outside of Hong Kong, giving rise to fears it could be used to intimidate and restrict free speech in other jurisdictions.

Critics, including the U.S. government, say the law will further narrow freedoms, and could be used to "eliminate dissent through the fear of arrest and detention".

Britain said the legislation would have a far-reaching impact on Hong Kong's reputation as an international city that respects the rule of law, has independent institutions and protects its citizens' freedoms.

"This new law, rushed through the legislative process, will have far-reaching implications for all of these areas," Foreign minister David Cameron said in a statement. He said it undermined the terms of the 1984 agreement under which Britain handed back rule of Hong Kong.

The U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China - which advises the U.S. Congress - published a letter, opens new tab to Secretary of State Antony Blinken last Thursday criticising the new laws and urging the U.S. government to "take additional steps to protect American citizens and businesses".

China's Foreign Ministry Commissioner's office in Hong Kong condemned the United States for its criticism.

"Immediately stop the political manipulation and interference in Hong Kong affairs," it said in an earlier statement.

All 89 lawmakers present voted to pass the bill. The assembly once had a strong pro-democracy camp but was overhauled in 2021 to ensure only Chinese "patriots" could run for office.

China's State Council Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, said the law would "secure Hong Kong's prosperity and stability" as well as safeguard the interests of overseas investors, democracy and freedom.

Critics say authorities largely ignored calls from diplomats, legal scholars, rights advocacy groups to better safeguard fundamental rights, including exemptions for the media from crimes like state secrets.

One foreign executive with decades of experience in Hong Kong and China said the new law could hurt Hong Kong as it finds itself caught between U.S.-China geopolitical tensions.

"To the rest of the world, Hong Kong is increasingly considered to be a part of China - economically and politically. Its uniqueness continues to be eroded," he said, declining to be identified given the sensitivity of the topic.

Hong Kong officials, however, say the laws are no more severe than those in other countries including the United States, Britain and Singapore; and will ensure stability and prevent a repeat of the mass pro-democracy protests in 2019.