Explained: Hong Kong's new national security law and how it affects freedom

Hong Kong Prime Minister John Lee says the laws meet international standards.

Hong Kong:

Hong Kong’s 90-seat legislature unanimously passed a new national security law on Tuesday, just 11 days after it was introduced, despite fears from Western governments that freedoms would be further eroded in the financial hub.

What do the new laws contain?

The package, known as Article 23, updates or introduces new laws to prohibit treason, sabotage, sedition, theft of state secrets and espionage. It also potentially tightens control over foreign political entities and organizations operating in the city by establishing provisions that define “external forces” and prohibit “external interference.”

Some lawyers said elements of the revised penalties for the offenses were similar to those in the West, but some provisions, such as those on sedition and state secrets, were broader and potentially stricter.

The law imposes penalties of up to life imprisonment for treason, insurrection, sabotage by collaborating with external forces to damage public infrastructure, and inciting members of the Chinese armed forces to mutiny; 20 years for espionage and 10 years for offenses related to state secrets and sedition, citing Hong Kong’s freedom of expression and other rights.

The need for these specific laws is briefly outlined in Article 23 of the Basic Law, the mini-constitutional document that has governed Hong Kong’s relations with China since its handover from British colonial rule in 1997.

A previous attempt to enact Article 23 in 2003 was shelved after an estimated 500,000 people protested peacefully.

WWhat influence could they have?

Companies such as foreign banks, hedge funds, private research institutes and media as well as diplomats and academics are monitoring developments.

Some fear the laws could further restrict the city’s freedoms, while others fear the final laws could impact data security and state secrets provisions could hinder research and information gathering.

The law introduces a new crime of sabotage involving the unlawful use of a computer or electronic system to endanger national security, punishable by 20 years in prison.

The definition of state secrets appears to be quite broad, some lawyers said, saying it includes military, security and diplomatic secrets, as well as classified social, economic and technological information about the Chinese and Hong Kong governments and their relationships.

Some analysts and diplomats fear that investigations into China’s politics, economy and military, as well as due diligence investigations into individuals and companies in mainland China – all traditionally conducted by a few Hong Kong-based firms and academics – are veering into areas of state secrecy could.

Although the type of information it contains is diverse, the law still requires that it be information that is classified and the disclosure of which would pose a threat to national security.

The law provides for public interest defenses, but the threshold appears high as long as “the disclosure manifestly outweighs the public interest achieved by not disclosing.”

Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee says the laws meet international standards and protect Hong Kong’s rights and freedoms.

Isn’t Hong Kong already subject to national security laws?

Yes. There are several old, vague and mysterious laws from its time as a British colony that are still in force.

Beijing also passed a comprehensive national security law in 2020. Officials said it was necessary to bring stability to Hong Kong after months of pro-democracy protests in 2019.

This law only addressed some crimes, such as collusion with foreign forces, and also allowed mainland national security officials to be stationed in the city for the first time.

It also created a provision allowing suspects to be tried on the mainland, where courts are under the control of the ruling Communist Party.

The 2020 law emphasized the need for Hong Kong to continue its work on Article 23 and create local laws. Senior Hong Kong officials say there is a need to close loopholes in the law, particularly those dealing with what they call “soft resistance” after the 2019 protests and internet control.

Security chief Chris Tang has repeatedly said the government needs better tools to combat espionage and the activities of foreign agents in the city.

Doesn’t China already have a state secrets law?

Following President Xi Jinping’s priorities, China updated its own state secrets laws in 2023, banning the sharing of any information related to national security and expanding the definition of espionage. Some analysts say it remains vague.

The Hong Kong version must deal with state secrets, but with legislation consistent with the standards of the UK-based common law, of which it remains a part.

(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is published from a syndicated feed.)

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