China has passed a controversial new security law, giving it new powers over Hong Kong, following more than a year of pro-democracy protests. But what does the new law involve and what will be its affects?
Critics of the national security law believe it has been introduced to crush the pro-democracy protests that have roiled the Asian financial hub for the past year, while tightening China’s direct control and bypassing the city’s nominal parliament.
The UK has accused Beijing of breaching a binding deal when Hong Kong was handed back to China in 1997 to guarantee the city’s way of life until 2047.
The new law is even worse and more overarching in scope than many had anticipated, introducing life sentences or long jail terms for vaguely defined national security crimes, grouped into four sections: subversion, secession, terrorism and colluding with foreign forces to endanger national security.
The 66 articles appear to be tailored to crush the Hong Kong protest movement but also contain wide-sweeping “national security” offences that extend far beyond Hong Kong citizenship or the city’s borders to curb general dissent. Legal experts are alarmed by the text’s ambiguity.
For example, inciting hatred of China’s central government and Hong Kong’s regional government are now offences under Article 29.
Beijing will have the final say. The law grants China jurisdiction and the right to take over a prosecution under three different scenarios – complicated foreign interference cases, “very serious” cases and when national security faces “serious and realistic threats”. Some trials will be held behind closed doors.
Controversially, the law also empowers China to set up a national security agency in the city, staffed by officials who are not bound by local law when carrying out duties.
The new suite of powers radically restructures the relationship between Beijing and Hong Kong, toppling the legal firewall that has existed between the city’s independent judiciary and the mainland’s party-controlled courts.
Both the national security agency and Hong Kong “can request to pass the case to mainland China and the prosecution will be done by a procuratorate designated by the Supreme People’s Procuratorate and the trial will be in a court designated by the Supreme Court,” the law stated.
“No matter whether violence has been used, or the threat of violence used, leaders or serious offenders will be sentenced for life imprisonment or a minimum of 10 years in jail,” the law declared.
Many fear it will be used to crush dissent, disappear pro-democracy leaders and stamp out media and political freedoms.
The protests began last year against an extradition bill that would have allowed criminal suspects to be tried in Chinese courts for the first time.
The unpopular legislation was eventually scrapped one Hong Kong barrister, described the new law as a “turbo-charged version” of the original, which reintroduces extradition with even more draconian elements. It paves the way for “hand-picked” judges and for mainland security agents to be stationed in Hong Kong.
“It has been completely written in Beijing so the definitions and penalties are likely to be much more worrying than what we have experienced in the past,” he said.
Those found guilty of crimes under the new law will be barred from public office, raising fears that pro-democracy candidates will be targeted ahead of the September legislative council elections.
Management of foreign non-governmental organisations and news agencies will be strengthened, which has stoked concerns about a clampdown on media freedoms.
Under Article 38, the legislation can also be applied to non-Hong Kong residents who are living abroad. Although it is unclear how this would be implemented, it may have a chilling effect on the Hong Kong diaspora and any support they may try to offer the protest movement.
Hong Kong is on edge ahead of the law’s enforcement from July 1.
A protest planned on Wednesday to mark the 23rd anniversary of the UK’s handover of Hong Kong to China may prove to be an early test of how the long will be applied, as many of the tactics used by protesters are now subject to draconian penalties.
Under new provisions, damaging public transport facilities can be considered terrorism – protesters often targeted the city’s metro system during the long-running demonstrations, accusing transport chiefs of collusion with Beijing.
Harsh penalties have also been introduced for attempts to “obstruct or damage” central or Hong Kong government facilities, with some observers noting the symbolism of enacting this law on the anniversary of democracy protesters storming the city’s parliament last year.
Beyond Wednesday’s rally, while some believe Beijing may take a soft approach to quell objections from the international community, others fear arrests of pro-democracy activists will be immediate to inflict “maximum deterrence” on the protest movement.