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New Hong Kong Security Law Comes Into Force Amid Fears for Freedoms

Lawmakers vote during the second reading of the Safeguarding National Security Bill, at Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, in Hong Kong, China, March 19, 2024.
Lawmakers vote during the second reading of the Safeguarding National Security Bill, at Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, in Hong Kong, China, March 19, 2024.

A new national security law came into force in Hong Kong on Saturday despite growing international criticism that it could erode freedoms in the city, which is ruled by China but has some autonomy stemming from its history as a British colony.

The law took effect at midnight, when it was published on a government website, days after Hong Kong's pro-Beijing lawmakers passed it unanimously, fast-tracking legislation to plug what authorities called national security loopholes.

Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee signed the new national security law on Friday evening, saying it "accomplished a historic mission, living up to the trust placed in us by the Central [Chinese] Authorities."

On Friday, Australia and Britain criticized China for its actions in Hong Kong after a meeting in Adelaide, noting in a joint statement "deep concerns about the continuing systemic erosion of autonomy, freedoms and rights."

Australia and Taiwan updated their travel advisories for Hong Kong, urging citizens to exercise caution.

"You could break the laws without intending to and be detained without charge and denied access to a lawyer," the Australian government said.

However, in a statement, Hong Kong authorities "strongly condemned such political maneuvers with skewed, fact-twisting, scaremongering and panic-spreading remarks."

Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1997 with the guarantee that its high degree of autonomy and freedoms, including freedom of speech and of assembly, would be protected under a "one country, two systems" formula.

The United Nations and the European Union criticized the extremely swift passage of the law, which was first tabled as a draft bill in early March.

"It is alarming that such consequential legislation was rushed through the legislature through an accelerated process, in spite of serious concerns raised about the incompatibility of many of its provisions with international human rights law," the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights said earlier.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the law would have "broad implications" for American citizens and companies in Hong Kong.

"We share concerns expressed by other nations that Hong Kong authorities could seek to apply the new legislation extraterritorially in their ongoing campaign of transnational repression, and condemn efforts to intimidate, harass and limit the free speech of U.S. citizens and residents," he said in a statement.

The new law encompasses treason, espionage and external interference and is being closely watched by diplomats and businesses who fear it could further dent Hong Kong's allure as an international financial hub.

China and the Hong Kong government have defended the security crackdown as essential to restoring order after months of sometimes violent anti-government street protests in 2019.

In recent years, many pro-democracy politicians and activists have been jailed or have gone into exile, and liberal media outlets and civil society groups have been shut down.

About 291 people have been arrested for national security offenses, with 174 people and five companies charged so far, according to official figures.

Chinese authorities insist all are equal before the national security laws that have restored stability to Hong Kong, and that individual rights are respected, though no freedoms are absolute.

A previous attempt to pass the national security law, called Article 23, was scrapped in 2003 after 500,000 people protested. This time around, public criticism has been muted amid the security crackdown.

Overseas Hong Kongers are planning protests in Britain, Taiwan, Canada and Japan on Saturday.

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