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West Eyes New Measures After Passage of Hong Kong Security Law

Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee applauds with lawmakers following the passage of Article 23 at the Legislative Council in Hong Kong, March 19, 2024. Western governments criticized the national security law for its vagueness and potential repercussions for freedom of speech.
Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee applauds with lawmakers following the passage of Article 23 at the Legislative Council in Hong Kong, March 19, 2024. Western governments criticized the national security law for its vagueness and potential repercussions for freedom of speech.

Hong Kong’s adoption of a second national security law Tuesday is being criticized by foreign governments, while some business figures say the law will hasten foreign businesses’ departure from the city.

The United Nations, the United States, the United Kingdom and the European Union expressed concern about the ambiguous language in the law and its speedy adoption, which was completed in less than two weeks.

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Turk warned that the vague provisions in the bill, also known as Article 23, could lead to the criminalization of freedom of expression, freedom of peaceful assembly and the right to receive and impart information, which are all rights protected under international human rights law.

Meanwhile, the U.S. State Department said passage of Article 23 could accelerate the closing of a once-open society, adding that the U.S. is analyzing the potential impact of the law.

British Foreign Secretary David Cameron said the law has failed to “provide certainty for international organizations, including diplomatic missions” operating in Hong Kong, and it will foster “the culture of self-censorship” that is now dominating the social and political landscape in the city.

Apart from reiterating concerns about the law’s potential impact on Hong Kong people’s basic rights and freedom, the EU said the bill’s increased penalties, extraterritorial reach and partial retroactive applicability are “also deeply worrying.”

Despite the international criticism, Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee hailed the passage of Article 23 as “a historic moment for Hong Kong,” while the Chinese government expressed “full support” of the development.

Rights activists call for sanctions

While they welcome the concerns expressed by foreign governments, some human rights activists urged democratic countries to respond with more forceful measures.

“With the enactment of the Article 23 legislation, now is the time to impose sanctions on officials like Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee,” said Benedict Rogers, the CEO of U.K.-based nongovernmental organization Hong Kong Watch.

Since Hong Kong implemented the controversial national security law and detained dozens of pro-democracy activists and politicians in 2020, the U.S. is the only country that has imposed sanctions on Hong Kong and Chinese officials, 24 of them in all.

Rogers said since the U.K. doesn’t want to damage trade relations with China, the British government remains reluctant to impose sanctions on Chinese officials over the deteriorating conditions in Hong Kong.

“[While] they imposed sanctions on some Chinese officials over the human rights violations in Xinjiang, they haven’t done anything similar on Hong Kong,” he told VOA by phone.

While the U.S. has introduced some tools to counter China’s tightening control over Hong Kong — including sanctions, new legislation to ban the export of certain items to Hong Kong and the elimination of Hong Kong’s special status — some observers urged Washington to roll out more forceful measures following the passage of the Article 23.

“There’s a lot that Congress and the administration can do, including issuing additional sanctions against people responsible for the implementation of the two national security laws and advancing other existing legislations related to Hong Kong,” Samuel Bickett, a Washington-based human rights activist, told VOA by phone.

In a letter to U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken Thursday, leaders of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China and the House Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party urged him to consider imposing new sanctions against officials responsible for undermining freedom and rule of law in Hong Kong.

They also vowed to advance the Hong Kong Economic Trade Office Certification Act and the Transnational Repression Policy Act through Congress. Once passed, the two bills would require Hong Kong to shut down its trade offices in the U.S. and allow the U.S. government to impose sanctions against Chinese or Hong Kong officials responsible for launching transnational repression against dissidents in the U.S.

Laws’ effect on immigration, business

Apart from adopting more forceful measures against the Hong Kong and Chinese governments, Bickett and Rogers think democratic countries should introduce new immigration measures to accommodate the growing number of Hong Kong citizens leaving the city. According to statistics from Bloomberg, around 500,000 people have left Hong Kong since 2021.

While the U.K. has introduced an immigration program for holders of British Overseas Passports from Hong Kong, which was recently extended to more young people, Rogers hopes other countries, including the U.S. and those in Europe, can create similar programs tailored for Hong Kongers.

“I would like to see the EU and the U.S. offer some options so Hong Kongers who don’t qualify for the U.K.’s immigration scheme can have alternative options,” he said.

Since the Article 23 legislation uses vague language to define espionage and theft of state secrets, some analysts say foreign businesses may face serious challenges when conducting due diligence investigations or seeking information.

“This could be a big blow to banks and financial institutions, and it will further discourage investors from coming to Hong Kong since access to information is now further restricted,” Eric Lai, an expert on Hong Kong’s legal system at Georgetown Center for Asian Law, told VOA by phone.

Some analysts say the growing uncertainty in the business environment would lead more foreign businesses to consider leaving Hong Kong.

“Article 23 will hasten the departure of international businesses unless the Hong Kong government quickly establishes guard rails constricting the operational boundaries of the new law,” Andrew Collier, managing director of Orient Capital Research, told VOA in a written response.