Beijing has imposed a raft of national security rules on Hong Kong, ushering in a new chapter of Chinese control over the semi-autonomous territory once known as a haven of political freedom and civil liberty.
Chinese and Hong Kong officials have said the law would target only a “narrow set” of behaviours, but the full text of the legislation – released only after it was enacted late on Tuesday – shows it covers a broad range of activities under vaguely defined crimes related to security. The harshest penalties are life in prison.
Legal experts say the most worrying aspect of the legislation is that it brings Chinese law and national security agencies to Hong Kong, eliminating the firewall separating it from mainland China under the “one country two systems” framework. Others say it aims to fundamentally change Hong Kong society with requirements for “national security education” in schools, the media, and the internet.
Here are the most concerning parts of the new law:
Broadly defined crimes
In criminalising secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces to endanger national security, the law is broad enough that it could target forms of what was previously protected speech – like holding up a sign. The rules also appear tailored to encompass the actions of demonstrators and their supporters in protests over the last year.
For example, asking foreign organisations or authorities to adopt sanctions against the Hong Kong or Beijing government or generally provoking Hong Kong residents to “hate” the Beijing or Hong Kong government could count as collusion. Vandalising public transport, a tactic used by demonstrators last year, would count as terrorism.
The law adopts broad definitions of national security used in mainland China, where such measures are often used against political dissidents. The vagueness of the definitions are all the more concerning because Chinese officials, the standing committee of the National People’s Congress, have ultimate say over interpreting the law.
Extradition of suspects to mainland China
Most of the national security cases will be tried in Hong Kong courts, but the central government can exercise jurisdiction over “complex cases” that involve foreign interference and are difficult for the Hong Kong government to oversee, “serious circumstances” as well as cases where China faces “grave” threats.
While the law does not explicitly allow for extradition, it says that China’s supreme people’s court can name “relevant courts” to handle certain trials. Zhang Xiaoming, executive director of the Hong Kong and Macao affairs office, said in a briefing on Wednesday that suspects in these cases would be tried in mainland China.
The prospect of residents being extradited to China’s politicised courts, where conviction rates are as high as 99%, is what prompted the protest movement in the first place last year.
Powerful Chinese agents operating in Hong Kong
Under the law, the National Security Office, an arm of the Chinese national security services, will be able to operate in Hong Kong,and its agents will be immune from local laws while performing their duties. All Hong Kong government departments are required to cooperate with the office.
The office is also charged with taking “necessary measures” to strengthen management of foreign non-governmental organisations and media. In mainland China, national security organs often block both domestic and foreign media, while news outlets and human rights organisations have been able to operate freely and independently in Hong Kong.
Expanded police powers
The law grants a new police department charged with national security cases greater authority to restrict residents from overseas travel, demand service providers to hand over personal information, require foreign political organisations or authorities to hand over information as well as other powers.
National security police can also search homes and electronic devices without a warrant, with approval from Hong Kong’s chief executive, as well as conduct covert surveillance and intercept communications.
Closed trials and trial without a jury
The law allows for trials without jury in cases related to national security that require the protection of “national secrets” or “foreign factors” or the protection of jurors, as approved by Hong Kong’s secretary of justice. In these cases, a panel of three judges is to oversee the case.
The press and the public may be barred from observing some cases that involve “state secrets” or risks to public order. Closed-door trials are often used in mainland China in cases involving political dissidents.
Legal experts are also concerned about the independence of the courts overseeing national security cases. Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, who answers directly to Beijing, will designate judges who may be removed if they are seen to endanger national security in speech or behaviour.
The law can apply to anyone
The law applies to permanent residents and non-residents in Hong Kong who violate the law on Hong Kong territory as well as to crimes committed by a Hong Kong permanent resident outside of the city.
Extraordinarily, it also appears to apply to anyone deemed as violating the law regardless of their nationality and where the alleged crime took place. Article 38 of the law state: “This law shall apply to offences … committed against the Hong Kong special administrative region from outside the region by a person who is not a permanent resident of the region.”
Donald Clarke, at the George Washington University Law School, wrote in an analysis: “I know of no reason not to think it means what it appears to say: it is asserting extraterritorial jurisdiction over every person on the planet.”