What is it and is it worrying?

The national security law was introduced in response to mass pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong

In 2020, China introduced a far-reaching new National Security Law (NSL) for Hong Kong, making it easier to prosecute protesters and reducing the city’s autonomy.

Critics have called it “the end of Hong Kong”, but what exactly does the law entail and what has changed since its introduction?

What is this law?

Hong Kong was always supposed to have a security law, but was never able to pass one because it was so unpopular. It is therefore for China to intervene to ensure that the city has a legal framework to deal with what it considers to be serious challenges to its authority.

Details of the 66 articles of the law were kept secret until it was passed. It criminalizes any act of:

  • secession – break with the country

  • subversion – attack on the power or authority of the central government

  • terrorism – using violence or intimidation against people

  • collusion with foreign or external forces

What are the provisions of the law?

The law came into effect at 11 p.m. local time on June 30, 2020, an hour before the 23rd anniversary of the city’s handover to China from British rule.

It gives Beijing the power to shape life in Hong Kong that it never had before.

Its main provisions include:

  • The crimes of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces are punishable by maximum life sentence

  • Damage public transport facilities can be considered terrorism

  • Those found guilty will not be allowed to stand for public office

  • Companies can be fined if found guilty under the law

  • This office can send some cases to try in mainland China – but Beijing said it would only have that power over a “small number” of cases

  • In addition, Hong Kong will have to create its own national security commission to enforce the laws, with an adviser appointed by Beijing

  • that of Hong Kong the chief executive will have the power to appoint judges to hear national security casesraising concerns about judicial autonomy

  • Above all, Beijing will have the power over how the law should be interpreted, not any judicial or political body of Hong Kong. If the law conflicts with a Hong Kong law, the Beijing law takes precedence

  • Some the trials will be held behind closed doors.

  • Persons suspected of breaking the law may be wiretapped and under surveillance

  • The management of non-governmental organizations and foreign press agencies will be strengthened

  • The the law will also apply to non-permanent residents and people”from outside [Hong Kong]… who are not permanent residents of Hong Kong“.

What has changed in Hong Kong since the introduction of the law?

Hundreds of protesters, activists and former opposition MPs have been arrested since the law came into effect.

“The arrests… [are] a worrying sign that its crackdown on Hong Kong will only intensify,” Human Rights Watch said.

Beijing said the law was needed to bring stability to the city, but critics say it is designed to crush dissent.

Earlier in 2022, the UK announced that two of its Supreme Court justices would no longer sit on Hong Kong’s highest court – as the threat to civil liberties had made their role untenable.

UK Supreme Court President Lord Robert Reed said he and Lord Patrick Hodge are resigning from the court over the threat to civil liberties posed by the new law.

“Since the national security law was imposed, the authorities have cracked down on freedom of speech, freedom of the press and freedom of association,” British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said.

“We have seen a systematic erosion of freedom and democracy in Hong Kong.”

Observers say the laws have also created a climate of fear stifling free speech.

Many pro-democracy news outlets in Hong Kong have shut down in recent months, including Apple Daily, which was known to criticize mainland Chinese leaders.

Many of Apple Daily’s staff, including its owner Jimmy Lai, have also been arrested and charged under the NSL.

“The arrests have heightened the sense of fear that has prevailed among journalists since the enactment of the National Security Law,” Chris Yeung, a veteran journalist and former president of the Hong Kong Journalists Association, told the BBC.

“The National Security Act has had far more detrimental effects on freedoms and way of life than many people realized a year ago.”

Why did China do this?

Hong Kong was returned to China from British control in 1997, but under a unique agreement – a mini-constitution called the Basic Law and a so-called “one country, two systems” principle.

They are supposed to protect certain freedoms for Hong Kong: freedom of assembly and speech, an independent judiciary and certain democratic rights – freedoms that no other part of mainland China has.

Under the same agreement, Hong Kong was to enact its own national security law – this was provided for in Article 23 of the Basic Law – but this never happened due to its unpopularity.

Pro-democracy protesters calling for the city's independence demonstration at the Tsim Sha Tsui waterfront in Hong Kong on May 10, 2020

Pro-democracy protesters in 2020

But in 2019, China proposed an extradition bill that could potentially allow Hong Kong suspects to be tried in China.

Anger over the potential bill has erupted into some of the biggest protests Hong Kong has ever seen, morphing into a broader anti-China and pro-democracy movement.

In response, China adopted the NSL.

How can China do this?

Many might wonder how China can do this if the city was supposed to have guaranteed freedoms under the transfer agreement.

The Basic Law states that Chinese laws can only be applied in Hong Kong if they are listed in a section called Annex III – there are already a few listed there, mostly non-controversial and relating to foreign policy .

These laws can be introduced by decree – meaning they bypass the city parliament.

If you want to know more about the China-Hong Kong tensions, read here:

Critics say introducing the law in this way amounts to a violation of the “one country, two systems” principle, which is so important to Hong Kong – but it is clearly technically possible to do so.

Reporting by BBC’s Grace Tsoi and Lam Cho Wai

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