Hong Kong on Tuesday formally began the process of enacting a controversial homegrown national security law in a move that could have deep ramifications for the city’s status as a global financial hub.
The proposed legislation will cover offenses including treason, theft of state secrets, espionage and external interference, in what Hong Kong officials say will “fill loopholes” in a sweeping national security law imposed on the city by China’s central government in 2020 following mass pro-democracy protests.
Known as Article 23, Hong Kong’s own security legislation was shelved in 2003 after a previous attempt to enact it drew half a million residents onto the streets in protest over fears it would erode civil liberties.
But no such public opposition is expected this time around.
Beijing’s national security crackdown of recent years has transformed once-freewheeling Hong Kong, silencing almost all dissent and jailing dozens of political opponents. Many civil society groups have disbanded, and outspoken media outlets have shut down.
Hong Kong and Chinese authorities say the Beijing-imposed security law, which criminalizes succession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces in vague and broad terms, has restored order to the city following the 2019 protests and deny it has curtailed freedoms.
And on Tuesday, Hong Kong’s leader said it’s now time to enact the city’s own additional security laws “as soon as possible.”
“Why now? We can’t wait. We can’t afford to wait,” Chief Executive John Lee said in announcing a public consultation for Article 23, calling its enactment the city’s “constitutional duty.”
“It’s for 26 years we’ve been waiting; we shouldn’t wait any longer,” he said, referring to the period since the former British colony was handed over to Chinese rule in 1997.
Under Hong Kong’s mini-constitution agreed by the two powers, the city is required to enact laws to prohibit acts that endanger national security.
“While we society as a whole looks calm and looks very safe, we still have to watch out for potential sabotage, undercurrents that try to create troubles,” Lee said.
The consultation began Tuesday and will end on February 28, shorter than the three months allocated for public feedback when the government last attempted to introduce the law more than two decades ago.
Lee cited rising geopolitical tensions as a factor in the urgency, highlighting the threat from “some Western countries” targeting China’s secure development.
“Foreign intelligence organizations, including the CIA and British intelligence agencies, have publicly stated that they will do a lot of work to target China and Hong Kong,” he said. “Foreign agents and Hong Kong independence ideas are still lurking in Hong Kong society.”
Hong Kong officials on Tuesday offered the first glimpse into some details of the proposed homegrown law.
A chapter of the consultation document is dedicated to acts of “theft of state secrets and espionage,” the city’s security chief Chris Tang said.
The legislation will create new offenses of “unlawful acquisition, possession and disclosure of state secrets,” he said, and broaden the definition of spying to cover “modern-day espionage activities.”
“For example, foreign forces can incite their agents to spread false or misleading information to interfere in Hong Kong’s affairs,” Tang said.
According to a 110-page consultation document released by the government for public comment, “state secrets” covers a wide range of categories related to both Hong Kong and China, including defense, diplomacy, economy, social affairs, technology, science, and the relationship between the central and Hong Kong governments.
There will also be new offenses on external interference, damage of public infrastructure, and the use of computers and electronics systems to conduct actions endangering national security, according to Tang.
The new security law could bring further uncertainty for Hong Kong, which is striving to maintain its status as Asia’s premier financial hub following three years of strict Covid restrictions and Beijing’s national security crackdown.
Beijing has also deepened its own crackdown on state security on the mainland. Last year, it broadened the definition of espionage and conducted raids on foreign consultancy firms, which spooked foreign businesses and investors.
Hong Kong officials have in recent years sought to reassure executives that the city would maintain a distinct role to that of mainland China, saying that central government officials had outlined their support for the city retaining its unique position as a conduit between East and West.