Accessibility links

Breaking News

Hong Kong Passes Homegrown National Security Law, Sparking International Backlash  


Lawmakers vote during the second reading of Safeguarding National Security Bill, also referred to as Basic Law Article 23, at the Legislative Council, in Hong Kong, March 19, 2024.
Lawmakers vote during the second reading of Safeguarding National Security Bill, also referred to as Basic Law Article 23, at the Legislative Council, in Hong Kong, March 19, 2024.

Hong Kong's legislature unanimously — and with surprising speed — approved its own sweeping national security law on Tuesday, strengthening the government's ability to silence dissent.

Hong Kong authorities say the law is needed to protect the city, but critics say its restrictions and vague language could hinder the work of journalists, businesspeople and clergy members.

The Safeguarding National Security Bill was passed Tuesday with a vote of 90-0 by the pro-Beijing chamber less than two weeks after it was presented. The law goes further than a similar bill imposed by China in 2020 in the wake of 2019 pro-democracy protests. That law has been used to arrest, jail and try hundreds of pro-democracy activists, stifling the city's once vibrant civil society.

In late January, Chief Executive John Lee announced that the legislature would create the new law as required by Article 23 of Hong Kong's Basic Law, the mini constitution that took effect when Britain handed the city back to China in 1997.

Lee hailed its speedy passage Tuesday, calling it "a historic moment for Hong Kong," adding that it will keep the city safe against "potential sabotage" and "undercurrents that try to create troubles." It goes into effect on Saturday, March 23.

The new law covers treason, insurrection, espionage, theft of state secrets, foreign influence and interference, and sabotage, including the use of computers and electronic systems to conduct acts that endanger national security. Anyone convicted under the new law could face prison terms ranging from several years to life.

The language outlining crimes such as espionage or theft of state secrets is vague, leaving open the possibility that individuals could inadvertently break the law. Critics say the law could make it more difficult for companies to operate in the city because businesses would have to make sure that all documents and information shared by employees do not break the new law.

Journalists, businesspeople and other stakeholders could be held accountable for handling documents or other confidential information.

Additionally, those who witness others breaking the new law are required to report them to authorities. The law could punish priests who hear confessions about national security offenses and don't report them, according to a government adviser.

An amendment to the law last week allows for new offenses to be created by Lee and his Cabinet to account for "unforeseen circumstances." The new offenses would be punishable by up to seven years in prison.

Reaction to passage of the law was quick, with the United States, Britain and the United Nations' High Commissioner for Human Rights all voicing concerns.

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk condemned both the swiftness with which the law was passed and the ambiguity of its language.

"This ambiguity is deeply troubling, given its potential misuse and arbitrary application, including to target dissenting voices, journalists, researchers, civil society actors and human rights defenders," he said.

At a regular briefing on Tuesday, the U.S. State Department said passage of the law could accelerate the closing of a once open society. Deputy spokesperson Vedant Patel added that Washington is analyzing the potential impact of the law on U.S. citizens and American interests.

British Foreign Secretary David Cameron said the law would have "far-reaching implications" for Hong Kong's reputation as an international city that respects the rule of law, the independence of its institutions and citizens' freedoms.

The law, passed by a stacked pro-Beijing legislature facilitated by China, has been condemned by human rights advocates and international stakeholders as well.

Maya Wang, acting China director at Human Rights Watch, said it will "usher Hong Kong into a new era of authoritarianism," and that "even possessing a book critical of the Chinese government can violate national security and mean years in prison in Hong Kong."

Kam-lung Yip is a pro-democracy activist. "This is a complete farce," he said. "They pulled out all the stops to try to pass the bill from the first day it was introduced. They just went through the legislation procedure like it's a rubber stamp. There was no involvement of what the Hong Kong people think but only what the Chinese Communist Party thinks. The legislation will send Hong Kong into an irreparable abyss!"

Yip is also a former district councilor for Hong Kong's Shek Tong Tsui constituency of Hong Kong's Central and Western District Council and co-founder of Island West Dynamic Movement. He is now a researcher at the University of Tokyo.

He said the passage of the bill is based on the disregard of rule of law.

"It usually takes three months for the passage of a draft bill, but this time it's shortened to about one month. And due to the enactment of National Security Law in Hong Kong, people are too afraid to speak out against it; no one would object," he said.

A letter written by U.S. lawmakers to Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Tuesday said the law "will only make Hong Kong less safe for U.S. businesses and citizens living in Hong Kong as well as Hong Kongers seeking to exercise their fundamental freedoms."

Ross Feingold is the director of business development at Caerus Consulting. Taiwan-based Feingold said that the legislation is targeted at the Hong Kong people, and that it won't be the direct reason for the foreign businesses to withdraw from Hong Kong.

"For [foreign] companies, they have been used to Hong Kong's national security laws for three years," he told VOA. "Moreover, many multinational corporations have been doing business in the mainland for a long time. They are used to the fact that China is not a Western society and will be more cautious in criticizing the government and discussing public affairs, so I don't think they will leave Hong Kong because of this legislation. They come to China and Hong Kong to do business, not to fight for democracy."

The Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China, made up of global legislators, has called the law the "most repressive national security legislation" in Hong Kong's history.

VOA's Mandarin Service contributed to this report. Some information came from The Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France-Presse.

  • 16x9 Image

    VOA News

    The Voice of America provides news and information in more than 40 languages to an estimated weekly audience of over 326 million people. Stories with the VOA News byline are the work of multiple VOA journalists and may contain information from wire service reports.