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Politics & Security

Vague and Draconian, Hong Kong Gets New National Security Law

The new law introduces harsher penalties for vaguely defined offenses, raising concerns about arbitrary enforcement and escalating repression in Hong Kong.



The second national security law was passed unanimously at the Hong Kong Legislative Council. Chief Executive John Lee (front center) applauds with other officials. March 19. (©Xinhua via Kyodo)

On March 19, the Hong Kong government passed another new national security law, known locally as Article 23. It has sparked widespread concern due to its vague definitions of criminal offenses, potentially encroaching upon journalistic freedom and business activities. Notably, the law introduces harsher penalties compared to existing legislation, raising fears of further societal tension in Hong Kong.

Security measures were heightened around the Legislative Council Complex on the day of enactment. Anti-terrorism forces were mobilized as a precautionary measure. 

The bill for this legislation was first proposed over two decades ago. An attempt to enact it was abandoned following mass protests in 2003 involving nearly half a million people.


Article 23 encompasses a range of offenses, including theft of state secrets, espionage, treason, sedition, insurrection, and interference by external forces. However, concerns raised during the Legislative Council's deliberations primarily revolved around the law's ambiguous language. 

For instance, the term "external forces" extends beyond foreign governments to include "the authority of a region or place of an external place." Additionally, it encompasses foreign political parties, political organizations, and international bodies — a category expansive enough to include a myriad of organizations including NGOs. The law prohibits such forces from influencing policies, legislation, or judiciary in China or Hong Kong, or interfering in elections.

Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee, government officials and lawmakers pose for a group photo after Article 23 was passed at the Hong Kong Legislative Council. March 19, 2024. (©REUTERS/Joyce Zhou)

Moreover, the law's definition of "state secrets" is similarly ambiguous. It covers major policy decisions, scientific and technological information, defense, diplomacy, national security matters, and even economic and social development information. 

However, what precisely constitutes such secrets remains unclear. The determination of whether something constitutes a state secret lies with the top executive, the Chief Executive of Hong Kong.

Heavier Penalties

Amid concerns about arbitrary enforcement, there are fears that media coverage and business activities could face heightened scrutiny and regulation. 


Reports indicate that the United States government-funded Radio Free Asia is planning to withdraw from Hong Kong due to apprehensions over the law's impact.

Furthermore, the law prohibits acts inciting hatred or contempt towards the Chinese and Hong Kong authorities. It imposes significantly harsher penalties compared to existing legislation. 

While current laws stipulate a maximum of two years' imprisonment, Article 23 raises the stakes with a maximum penalty of seven years. In cases involving "external forces," this could escalate to a maximum sentence of ten years.

Merely possessing a copy of a newspaper like Apple Daily, which was prosecuted in 2021 for violating the National Security Law, is considered possession of seditious materials under current laws. Article 23 increases the potential penalty to up to three years' imprisonment, harsher than existing legislation.


(Read the article in Japanese.)

Author: Kinya Fujimoto

Read other reports and essays about the struggle for liberty and democracy in the face of dictators by this Vaughn Prize-winning author.


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