Hong Kong introduces security law targeting 'foreign forces' in city

Rebooted after mass protests 20 years ago, the draft is aimed at 'undercurrents' of dissent, foreign 'interference.'
By Gigi Lee and Alice Yam for RFA Cantonese, Chen Zifei and Amelia Loi for RFA Mandarin
Hong Kong introduces security law targeting 'foreign forces' in city Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee, center, speaks during a press conference on national security legislation at government headquarters in Hong Kong on January 30, 2024. Secretary for Justice Paul Lam, left, and Secretary for Security Chris Tang, right, also attended.
(Peter Parks/AFP)

Hong Kong on Tuesday revealed details of fresh national security legislation aimed at wiping out "undercurrents" of dissent and support for democracy among the city's own population, as well as espionage by the CIA and British intelligence services, officials said.

More than 20 years after similar legislation was stalled following mass protests, the government introduced its Safeguarding National Security Ordinance, which will criminalize "treason," "insurrection," the theft of "state secrets," "sabotage" and "external interference," among other national security offenses.

"While the society as a whole may appear calm and very safe, we still have to watch out for potential sabotage and undercurrents that try to create trouble," Chief Executive John Lee told a news conference launching a public consultation process on Tuesday.

"Some of the independent Hong Kong ideas are still ... embedded in some people's minds, and some foreign agents may still be active in Hong Kong, and they may be conducting their activities in a deceptive way," he said.

"Everyone knows that there are Western countries that target our country’s security development and also target China for personal political reasons," Lee said, adding that "foreign agents and Hong Kong independence are still lurking in Hong Kong."

While the city is still in the throes of a crackdown on dissent sparked by the imposition of Beijing's National Security Law in 2020, it has a duty under its own Basic Law to enact its own national security legislation, which has been shelved since 2003.

Riot in Hong Kong police detain a protester during a demonstration against Beijing's national security legislation, May 24, 2020. (Vincent Yu/AP)
Riot in Hong Kong police detain a protester during a demonstration against Beijing's national security legislation, May 24, 2020. (Vincent Yu/AP)

Legal experts said many of the concepts, such as what constitutes "treason" or a "state secret" are vague, but that they basically mirror similar concepts in China's own National Security Law.

Eric Lai, a research fellow at the Center for Asian Law, Georgetown University, said the draft law essentially transfers a number of concepts previously only used in a Chinese legal context to Hong Kong.

"The Hong Kong government has officially incorporated mainland China's National Security Law and its overall national security concepts into local law," Li told RFA. 

"The content about counterintelligence crimes is in line with the mainland's counter-intelligence law, and the definition of a state secret is in line with that of the mainland," he said.

More danger than protection

Benedict Rogers, co-founder and Chief Executive Officer of the London-based rights group Hong Kong Watch, said Beijing is continuing to "blur the lines" between the legal systems of mainland China and Hong Kong.

"This legislation would be a further death knell to Hong Kong’s fundamental freedoms and human rights which are guaranteed under international law," he said in a statement on the group's website.

"Article 23 [legislation] would not protect, but gravely endanger, Hong Kongers, including those who now live outside Hong Kong, in the UK, US, Canada and across the EU," Rogers warned, calling on the British government to impose sanctions on John Lee. 

"The law ... has the potential to harm millions of Hong Kongers in the city and abroad," he said.

Georgetown's Eric Lai also noted that information relating to "economic and social development" will be regarded as a state secret under the new law, not just confidential government information. Authorities in China have recently targeted foreign consultancies and alleged spies under a newly amended Counterespionage Law that has been criticized by foreign investors.

He said that the law, which looks almost certain to be passed amid a lack of political opposition in the Legislative Council, will likely affect business confidence in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee, center, Secretary for Justice Paul Lam, left, and Secretary for Security Chris Tang hold a press conference at government headquarters in Hong Kong on Jan. 30, 2024. (Peter Parks/AFP)
Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee, center, Secretary for Justice Paul Lam, left, and Secretary for Security Chris Tang hold a press conference at government headquarters in Hong Kong on Jan. 30, 2024. (Peter Parks/AFP)

Edward Chin, a senior hedge fund manager in Hong Kong, warned that the business community may "vote with their feet."

"[They might be] looking for locations with a reasonable business environment and sound rule of law, as opposed to common law with Chinese characteristics, which is what they've turned Hong Kong's original system into," Chin told the RFA Cantonese talk show "Financial Freedom."

"I think everyone has a bottom line, and I think there is a good chance of foreign capital divesting again," he said.

Po Kong Ngan, former assistant controller at i-CABLE News, told the show that the consultation document mentions a number of "computer” crimes, which could encompass even such actions as leaving a comment on YouTube or Facebook.

"Will they be prosecuted or targeted for this?" Ngan said, citing a potential scenario in which the government gets nervous over large numbers of critical comments on YouTube or Facebook, which it is unable to have taken down. 

"I think these organizations will be very worried about the safety of their employees in Hong Kong."

'External forces'

Meanwhile, Eric Lai said the law in particular lists activities by foreign political entities, including human rights groups and non-government organizations, as "interference," without defining what "external forces" actually means.

The effect will be to cut the city off from ties with international organizations and groups, he said.

Chief Executive Lee said the law was a necessary "defensive" measure, however.

"The new law aims to create a stable and safe environment so that when people attack us, we will be protected," he told reporters. "This is a law to tell people not to attack us. It is, in a way, a defensive law. I hope people will see the law and know that they may try somewhere else rather than Hong Kong."

Rwei-ren Wu, an associate research fellow and history professor at Taiwan's Academia Sinica, said the law doesn't appear to be very necessary at all, however.

"It's a bit like taking off your pants to fart, if I may use a crude expression," Wu told RFA. "Isn't the current legislation tight enough?"

Wu said the Chinese Communist Party feels it has to clamp down even harder on any potential threats to its rule, as it feels threatened by the current economic downturn.

"They are getting more and more suspicious, and have to control everything," he said. "I don't think Beijing cares very much about what happens to Hong Kong, but it needs Hong Kong to maintain some kind of role outside of China."

A public consultation period on the new law will run until Feb. 28, while the government has said it aims to pass the legislation before the legislature's summer recess.

Exiled former pro-democracy lawmaker and lawyer Ted Hui said there are many "dangerous areas" for people who support democracy in Hong Kong, citing the retroactive use of the existing National Security Law to prosecute people.

"There are dangerous areas, for example, treason, and there are gray areas," Hui told RFA. "For example, Taiwan is a fairly sensitive issue, because many Hong Kongers support Taiwan, but the current document doesn't talk about retroactive effect."

"If war or conflict breaks out in the Taiwan Strait, will people who once visited Taiwan to observe the elections or expressed support for Taiwan in the past be regarded as having committed treason?" he said. "It could be very easy to fall into such a trap."

He said that while the 2003 draft legislation referred to "enemy" forces, the current draft refers instead to "foreign forces," a much vaguer term.

"The scope has expanded a great deal," Hui said. "People like me who engage in overseas lobbying, groups set up by emigre Hong Kongers around the world, could all be termed foreign forces."

"Hong Kong groups have organized many activities and many Hong Kong people participated," he said. "It's possible that all of that will become illegal."

Translated by Luisetta Mudie.


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