Hong Kong’s New National Security Bill Includes Stiff Penalties and More Power to Suppress Dissent

AP Photo/Andy Wong
Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee, center, waves to delegates after the opening session of the National People’s Congress (NPC) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Tuesday, March 5, 2024.

HONG KONG (AP) — Hong Kong unveiled a new national security bill Friday that proposes up to life imprisonment for offenses like treason and insurrection, a move deepening worries over further erosion of the city’s freedoms after Beijing imposed a similar law four years ago that all but wiped out dissent.

The proposed law will expand the government’s power in stamping out future challenges to its rule, targeting espionage, external interference and protection of state secrets among others. Stiffer penalties were also suggested for sedition.

Under a push by Hong Kong leader John Lee to finish the legislative process “at full speed,” lawmakers are set to begin their debate Friday in a meeting that was specially arranged to expedite it. The bill is expected to pass easily, possibly in weeks, in a legislature packed with Beijing loyalists following an electoral overhaul.

Critics have warned the legislation will make Hong Kong’s legal framework increasingly similar to that of mainland China, and add to a decline in civil liberties that were promised to remain intact for 50 years when the former British colony returned to Chinese rule in 1997.

However, the government pointed to the massive anti-government protests that rocked the city in 2019 to justify its necessity, insisting it would only affect “an extremely small minority” of disloyal residents.

Under the new law, instigating a foreign country to invade China with force could be punished by a maximum penalty of life imprisonment as a treason offense. Committing violence while being reckless enough to endanger the city’s public safety as a whole could be considered insurrection.

The government also suggested harsher penalties when residents collude with foreign forces to commit certain offenses, as opposed to doing them independently.

If they damage public infrastructure, including the airport and other public means of transport, with the intent of endangering national security, they face maximum penalty is imprisonment for 20 years. But if they collude with an external force in doing so, they could be sentenced for life.

Similarly, those who commit a sedition offense face a jail term of seven years but colluding with an external force to carry out such acts increase that penalty to 10 years.

Its expansive definition of external forces include foreign governments and political parties, international organizations, and companies when their directors are obligated to act in accordance with the wishes of a foreign government.

Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, the Basic Law, requires the city to enact a homegrown national security law. But a previous attempt to pass a version of the law sparked a massive street protest that drew half a million people, and the legislation was shelved.

Huge protests against the current bill are unlikely to be repeated due to the chilling effect of the 2020 law. After it was enacted to quell the 2019 protests, many of the city’s leading pro-democracy activists have been arrested and others fled abroad. Dozens of civil society groups have been disbanded, and outspoken media outlets like Apple Daily and Stand News have been shut down.

During a one-month public comment period that ended last week, 98.6% of the views received by officials showed support, and only 0.72% opposed the proposals, the government said. The rest purely contain questions or opinions that cannot reflect the authors’ stance, it added.

But business people and journalists have expressed fear that a broadly framed law could criminalize their day-to-day work.