Hong Kong’s government announced on Tuesday that it intends to quickly pass new national security laws. A public consultation document was also released. A deadline for its eventual passage into law has yet to be set.
WHAT NEW LAWS ARE LIKELY TO BE INVOLVED?
The Article 23 package aims to update or create new laws prohibiting treason, sabotage, sedition, theft of state secrets, and espionage, as well as tightening control over foreign political bodies and organizations operating in the city.
The need for those specific laws is briefly stated in Article 23 of the Basic Law, a mini-constitutional document that has guided Hong Kong’s relations with its Chinese sovereign since its independence from British colonial rule in 1997.
A previous attempt to enact Article 23 in 2003 was thwarted after an estimated 500,000 people held a peaceful protest against the proposals.
ISN’T HONG KONG ALREADY UNDER NATIONAL SECURITY LAWS?
Yes. Several old, vague, and arcane laws from its time as a British colony remain on the books.
Beijing also imposed a broad national security law on its freest city in 2020, citing the need for stability following months of pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong in 2019.
That law addressed only a few offenses, such as collusion with foreign forces, while also allowing mainland national security officers to be stationed in the city for the first time.
It also included a provision that allowed suspects to be tried on the mainland, where the courts are controlled by the ruling Communist Party.
The 2020 law emphasized the importance of Hong Kong continuing to work on Article 23, including the development of local legislation. Senior Hong Kong officials say it is necessary to close legal gaps, particularly in dealing with “soft resistance” after 2019, as well as internet control.
Security chief Chris Tang has repeatedly said the government needs better tools to deal with espionage and the activities of foreign agents in the city.
WHAT IMPACT MIGHT THEY HAVE?
Businesses, including foreign banks, hedge funds, and private research operations, as well as diplomats and academics, are closely monitoring developments. Some are concerned that the bill will lead to internet controls or have an impact on data operations.
The consultation document establishes a new sabotage offense of illegally using a computer or electronic system to endanger national security.
Some fear that research on China’s politics, economy, and military, as well as due diligence investigations into individuals and companies on the Chinese mainland, which have traditionally been carried out by Hong Kong firms and academics, will stray into areas of state secrecy.
The consultation document defines a list of Hong Kong state secrets, which includes economic, scientific, diplomatic, and social secrets, but states that they must endanger national security if disclosed.
Simon Young, a law professor at the University of Hong Kong, predicted that while many unknowns remained, the law would eventually adopt broad definitions for both a foreign political organization and a foreign agent.
“It may well be that businesses or groups that have some connection with foreign governments might be captured here,” he said.
Hong Kong’s leader, John Lee, stated on Tuesday that the laws would meet international standards while protecting Hong Kong’s rights and freedoms.
DOESN’T CHINA ALREADY HAVE STATE SECRETS LAW?
Reflecting President Xi Jinping’s priorities, China updated its own state secrets laws in 2023, prohibiting the transfer of any information related to national security and broadening the definition of espionage. Some analysts believe it remains ambiguous.
Hong Kong’s version must deal with state secrets while adhering to the standards of British common law, of which it is still a part.
Hong Kong could bridge the gap with some strict definitions of what is protected, providing clarity, but “the mainland concept and legal definition of state secrets still looms large and we can’t ignore that,” Young said.
WILL THESE NEW LAWS PASS EASILY?
Unlike the tensions that surrounded the bill in 2003, the final Article 23 bill is expected to pass easily and quickly, following formal readings and debate in the Legislative Council. Following changes to Hong Kong’s electoral system in 2019, pro-establishment figures screened as “patriots” now control the body.