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Hong Kong Speeds Up Plans to Silence Anti-government Activists

Hong Kong leader John Lee is under orders from Beijing to enact Article 23, a national security law that prohibits vaguely defined acts of subversion.



Hong Kong's Secretary for Justice Paul Lam, Chief Executive John Lee and Secretary for Security Chris Tang Ping-keung attend a press conference regarding the legislation of Article 23 national security laws, in Hong Kong, China January 30, 2024. (©REUTERS/Lam Yik)

The Chief Executive of Hong Kong, John Lee has been instructed by his superiors in mainland China to enact further strict security legislation in the city without delay. Pro-democracy advocates warn the move will have a detrimental impact on civil liberties.

The proposed new laws cover treason, insurrection, incitement, and collusion with external forces. Penalties range from a few years in jail to life imprisonment.

Offenses and punishments are outlined in a draft bill entitled "Safeguarding National Security." It is to be enacted under a document known as Article 23 of the Hong Kong Basic Law. Pushed in a rush, it is likely to be enacted within weeks. Then it will then be implemented alongside a separate Hong Kong national security law which was imposed on Hong Kong by the Chinese authorities in 2020, four years ago.

Hong Kong's top government chief executive John Lee (top right) applauds President Xi Jinping at the National People's Congress. Sunday, March 5 in Beijing. (©Kyodo)

On Beijing's Orders

On Tuesday, March 5, John Lee attended a meeting of the National People's Congress in Beijing. He was also photographed in the Great Hall of the People, smiling and chatting with delegates. Apparently he was preparing for a prolonged stay in the capital.

However, China's Vice Premier Ding Xuexiang informed his visitor that Hong Kong has been identified as a top priority for national security.

In response, Mr Lee immediately returned to Hong Kong. He then arranged for the parliament there, known as the Legislative Council, or LegCo, to sign the new laws.

Mr Lee said, "Both the government and the Legislative Council have the responsibility to, and must, make every endeavor to complete the enactment of the legislation at the earliest possible time."

Delegates at LegCo never block plans presented by either the Chief Executive or senior figures in Beijing. Lawmakers are only accepted to the role if they are prepared to rubber stamp policy which has been previously agreed at Chinese Communist Party meetings. This also matches the approach of the National People's Congress, which complies with the wishes of Xi Jinping.


Despite this, the Chinese authorities still like to give the impression that people in Hong Kong are involved in democratic processes. In addition, there was an official one-month consultation period on the new laws. According to the government, 98.6 percent of the 13,489 submissions voiced support for the legislation. The outcome of the "survey" was announced before a full draft of the proposed law had been published.

The Hong Kong delegation to China's National People's Congress meets on March 6 in Beijing. (©Kyodo)

Media Pressure

Michael C Davis is a human rights professor and fellow at the Wilson Center think tank in Washington DC. In that position, he has also looked at the new provisions. He says that the Article 23 legislation has profound implications for many aspects of life in Hong Kong.

In particular, he is concerned about the proposed strong punishments for anyone accused of sedition. This, he warns, could be a means to silence critics of either the local government or the Chinese Communist Party. 

"It creates an environment in which the media, which used to be vibrant, will be under severe pressure. Reporters will need to be careful," says Professor Davis. He taught law in Hong Kong for thirty years, including at the University of Hong Kong (HKU).

Professor Davis is also worried about the implications for campuses. These were once noted for their academic rigor and lively student communities. "The threat of being accused of sedition will hang over the heads of anyone who speaks out," he says.

The Hong Kong Legislative Council begins deliberations on the new national security ordinance on March 8. (©CNS via Kyodo)

US Objections

Similar unease has been voiced by the United States State Department. Spokesman Matthew Millar said: "We are particularly concerned by the proposal to adopt broad and vague definitions of state secrets and external interference. They could be used to eliminate dissent, through the fear of arrest and detention."

Mr Millar suggested that the authorities may even attempt to apply Article 23 outside of China. He said this could intimidate US citizens or restrict their freedom of speech.

Financial Hub

Despite concerns about the new security legislation, the Chinese still hope Hong Kong will retain its attraction as a business hub. At the annual Two Sessions political event which opened in Beijing on March 4, Vice Premier Ding urged Hong Kongers to maintain the city's open economy. Furthermore, he called on them to "enhance its international influence through deepening collaborations."

Professor Davis notes that international companies are already wary of dealing with China. The addition of Article 23 legislation to the Hong Kong constitution will increase their difficulties.

He says that many foreign companies already advise their staff not to take computers or cell phones into mainland China and these restrictions may soon be extended to Hong Kong.


"There is a risk in having company information accessible to police investigations and surveillance in Hong Kong. This will definitely leave a cloud hanging over the whole business sector," he says.

Those convicted of colluding with foreigners against the state face a sentence of up to 14 years in jail. "How can that sit comfortably with the idea of promoting Hong Kong as a global financial center?" asks Professor Davis. 


Author: Duncan Bartlett, Diplomatic Correspondent
Mr Bartlett is the Diplomatic Correspondent for JAPAN Forward and a Research Associate at the SOAS China Institute. Read his articles and essays.

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