Hong Kong passed national security laws on Tuesday at Beijing’s behest, thwarting decades of public resistance. Critics say it will represent a lasting blow to the city’s partial autonomy promised by China.

The new law, passed with extraordinary speed, gives authorities even more powers to crack down on opposition to Beijing and the Hong Kong government and imposes vaguely defined penalties – including life imprisonment – for political crimes such as treason and sedition are. It also targets crimes such as “external interference” and theft of state secrets, which pose potential risks for multinational companies and international corporations operating in the Asian financial hub.

Analysts say the legislation, which will take effect on March 23, could have a chilling effect on a wide range of people, including business owners, civil servants, lawyers, diplomats, journalists and academics, and raise questions about Hong Kong’s international status city ​​could raise.

Many of the opposition figures who may have challenged the law have either been jailed or gone into exile since China’s ruling Communist Party passed the first national security law in 2020 under Xi Jinping, its most powerful leader in decades, giving authorities an effective tool Suppressing dissent after months of anti-government demonstrations gripped the city in 2019.

Hong Kong’s Beijing-backed leader John Lee said the package of new laws was necessary to stamp out unrest and combat what he called Western espionage. Once the laws are passed, the government can focus on the economy, he said.

In a speech to Parliament, Mr Lee said the new laws would “enable Hong Kong to effectively prevent and stop espionage activities, conspiracies and traps by intelligence units, as well as the infiltration and damage of enemy forces”.

Lawmakers had put legislation on the fast track by holding marathon sessions over a week and working through a weekend. The bill passed unanimously on Tuesday.

“Swift passage should show the people of Hong Kong the government’s determination and ability to see it through,” said Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute in London. “The new national security law is about both intimidation and enforcement.”

For Mr Lee, the Hong Kong leader, “the first concern is not how people in Hong Kong or the rest of the world view this,” Professor Tsang said. “He appears before the audience of one – Xi himself.”

And in Beijing’s eyes, these laws are long overdue.

When Hong Kong, a former British colony, came back under Chinese rule in 1997, it received a mini-constitution designed to protect civil liberties unknown in mainland China, such as freedom of expression, assembly and the media. But China also insisted on a provision called Article 23 that required Hong Kong to draft a package of internal security laws to replace colonial-era sedition laws.

The first attempts to pass such a law in 2003 sparked mass protests involving hundreds of thousands of people. Senior officials resigned, and in subsequent years city leaders were reluctant to raise the matter again for fear of public backlash.

But in recent months, the Chinese Communist Party has called on the Hong Kong government to enact Article 23 laws.

There was little chance that China’s will would be ignored; Since China overhauled its electoral system to exclude candidates who were not considered “patriots,” Hong Kong’s legislature has been overwhelmingly made up of pro-Beijing lawmakers.

The new laws target five types of crimes: treason, insurrection, theft of state secrets, sabotage and foreign interference. They also introduce important due process changes. In some cases, police can now seek permission from judges to prevent suspects from contacting the lawyers of their choice if doing so is seen as a threat to national security.

Human rights groups said that by quickly passing the law, authorities had made a U-turn on the freedoms once promised to the city.

Maya Wang, acting China director at Human Rights Watch, said on Tuesday that the new security law would “lead Hong Kong into a new era of authoritarianism.” The government has criticized foreign-based human rights groups as “anti-China” and “anti-government” organizations.

The vague wording of some laws has raised questions among legal scholars. For example, an act of espionage under the new laws could include passing on “useful information” to an “external force.” Such a broad definition could hinder legitimate exchanges with diplomats, Simon Young, a law professor at the University of Hong Kong, wrote in an article Template to the government last month.

Professor Young also objected to the legislation’s broad definition of “riot”, which includes intent to “stir up discontent” against the state or its institutions. Dissatisfaction is “an emotional state whose threshold is too low to be the subject of a crime,” he wrote.

“It’s not a crime to just think like that,” he added.

The law also authorizes the city’s leader, known as the chief executive, to enact new, related laws that can carry penalties of up to seven years in prison without the need for veto from the Legislature. The leader would consult the Cabinet before enacting such a law; The Legislative Council, known as LegCo, could later amend or reject the law.

Such a mechanism would be nothing new for Hong Kong, but it increases the potential for abuse given how broadly worded the new legislation is, said Thomas E. Kellogg, executive director of the Center for Asian Law at Georgetown University.

“This is deeply disturbing,” Professor Kellogg wrote in an email. “The Legislative Council gives the chief executive the power to expand the law even further, in ways that could further violate fundamental rights.”

Hong Kong, known for its fierce political opposition just a few years ago, is now more like mainland China, where dissent can carry high costs. During recent meetings on the new security legislation, lawmakers overwhelmingly proposed changes that would make it even tougher.

“They appear to be looking for ways to signal their loyalty to the administration’s national security agenda and to ensure that they do not allow daylight between themselves and the administration,” Professor Kellogg said.

The discussion of the bill highlighted the city’s new political landscape and the ambiguity of the new boundaries around language.

Lawmakers asked whether owning old copies of Apple Daily, a now-defunct pro-democracy newspaper, was a crime. (A security official said it depended on whether there were “seditious intentions.”) A government adviser said that priests who heard confessions about national security violations such as treason could themselves be charged under the new law if they do not report what they heard. (The Catholic diocese from Hong Kong said the church recognizes that citizens have an obligation to ensure national security, but confessions will remain confidential.)

The legislation’s vague wording – for example, in the way it defines crimes such as theft of state secrets – is comparable to the language in security legislation in mainland China. And someone who shares “information that appears confidential,” even if it is not classified as a state secret, could be punished if that person is seen by authorities as intending to endanger national security.

Business leaders in Hong Kong say such changes could increase operating costs in the city by requiring companies to check documents and other information shared by employees to ensure they do not inadvertently violate the new law.

One risk is that Hong Kong’s comparative business advantage over the mainland could be eroded, said Johannes Hack, president of the German Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong.

“Part of the unique value that Hong Kong has for Western (German) stakeholders is the openness of the city, and we believe that the balance between openness and the desire for security must be well balanced,” he wrote in a message on WhatsApp.

Olivia Wang contributed to reporting.

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