Analysts increasingly fear that Beijing’s national security law, initially aimed at quelling dissent in Hong Kong, may be used to target people of any nationality or ethnicity who offend Chinese leaders.
The law took effect in June 2020 after a year of sometimes violent Hong Kong pro-democracy protests against the government. The measure prohibits acts of “separatism, subversion, terrorism, and colluding with foreign forces.”
At least 117 people have been arrested and 60 charged in the former British colony and world financial center in the 13 months since the law took effect.
Violations carry a sentence of up to life in prison.
But experts say the law’s open-ended wording, along with the Chinese government’s wider ambitions, leaves open the possibility that it will be used against anyone with known anti-China or pro-Hong Kong independence sentiments who sets foot in a Chinese territory such as Hong Kong or the former Portuguese colony of Macao.
“As long as China can execute their jurisdiction within Chinese territory, Hong Kong and Macao, people who violate (the) national security law could be extradited to China for the trial, even if just transferring at Chinese airports,” said Chen Yi-fan, assistant professor of diplomacy and international relations at Tamkang University near Taipei.
Taiwanese scholar under fire
Wu Rwei-ren, a research fellow at Taipei-based Academia Sinica, last year became the first Taiwanese person to be accused of breaking the law. A Beijing government-backed media outlet, Takungpao, called out the 60-year-old scholar over an article advocating for Hong Kong independence.
University officials could not be reached for comment.
People in Taiwan will be particularly suspected as time goes on, analysts say.
China claims Taiwan as part of its territory despite the island’s sometimes defiant self-rule of 80 years and has not ruled out using force to reunite it with the mainland.
Democratic Taiwan has an independent media scene and according to a National Chengchi University Election Study Center survey, more than half of Taiwan’s residents want to keep the status quo indefinitely or decide later on the question of unification with China.
Beijing regularly flies military planes into Taiwan’s airspace.
“Usually moves like these are meant to send a message,” said Sean Su, an independent political analyst in Taiwan. “It could be used as sort of a weapon in order to try to intimidate people in Taiwan, but I think the after effect, I think is going to be negative.”
Wording of the law covers residents of Hong Kong as well as people who have never visited, according to New York-based advocacy group Amnesty International.
Amnesty said in July 2020 that anyone on Earth, “regardless of nationality or location, can technically be deemed to have violated this law and face arrest and prosecution if they are in a Chinese jurisdiction, even for transit.”
China says its Hong Kong policy is aimed at protecting the territory’s stability and legal system. “Anti-China forces who seek to destabilize Hong Kong must be resolutely excluded” from any positions of power in Hong Kong, said Xia Baolong, head of the State Council’s Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office.
Hong Kong residents abroad
Hong Kong native Joey Siu, who works in Washington, assumed she would be arrested “immediately” if she showed at the airport in the former British colony. She hasn’t been back to Hong Kong since the law took effect. Siu works for the UK-based human rights group Hong Kong Watch, organizing protests and rallies while doing international advocacy work.
“Since the law was implemented in 2020, I have felt that I am no longer safe in Hong Kong, because I figured that I was being followed by people who I don’t know if they are security guards or they are Hong Kong police officers, so I felt like my personal safety is no longer guaranteed in Hong Kong and obviously my international advocacy effort is going to lead me to being charged under the name of colluding with foreign forces,” Siu told VOA.
At least four other Hong Kong activists are now staying in the United States and Europe for the same reason, she said.
Siu says writing about dissent will also lead to arrest, although the law lays down no “solid red line” about what’s criminal. The law may extend as well to people who support the political causes of disenchanted Tibetans and Uyghurs, two Chinese ethnic minority groups that have clashed with Beijing's objectives, she said.
China has extradition treaties with 37 countries and uses them. The government in Beijing has requested the extradition of ethnic Uyghurs in Malaysia – a request that was denied – for example, according to the Washington-based Center for Advanced China Research.
An offender of the national security law who is based in a China-sympathetic country such as Cambodia would face high odds of extradition, said Stephen Nagy, senior associate professor of politics and international studies at International Christian University in Tokyo.
Individuals who use Mandarin or Cantonese to spread their ideas counter to the Communist Party “narrative” are more likely to be targeted, Nagy said.
“Retroactively charging an (overseas-based) Hong Kong (native), or a Taiwanese scholar, or actions they may have done is very worrisome because it’s an extension of domestic law, and it’s not recognizing the various identities that exist in the Chinese, greater China sphere,” he said.
For this reason, Nagy says, foreign governments are warning their citizens to avoid visiting China, including Hong Kong. The U.S. Department of State, for example, urges U.S. citizens to “reconsider” travel to Hong Kong and the Chinese mainland because of “arbitrary enforcement of local laws.”