Hong Kong –

Hong Kong lawmakers unanimously passed a new national security law on Tuesday that gives the government more powers to suppress dissent. This is widely seen as the latest step in a sweeping political crackdown sparked by pro-democracy protests in 2019.

Lawmakers passed the national security law during a special session. The law will expand authorities’ ability to prosecute citizens for crimes including “colluding with external forces” to commit illegal acts, and charge them with treason, insurrection, espionage and disclosing state secrets, among others.

It comes on top of a similar security law Beijing passed in 2020 that has already largely silenced opposition voices in the financial hub. Critics fear the new law will further erode civil liberties that Beijing promised to protect for 50 years when the former British colony fell back under Chinese rule in 1997.

Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, packed with Beijing supporters following electoral reforms, rushed to pass the law. A committee has held daily meetings for a week since the bill was unveiled on March 8, after Hong Kong leader John Lee called for the law to be enforced “at full speed.” After the vote, Lee said the law would take effect Saturday.

“Today is a historic moment for Hong Kong,” he said.

The newly passed law imposes strict penalties for a variety of actions that authorities describe as threats to national security. The most serious – including treason and sedition – are punishable by life imprisonment. Minor offenses, including possession of seditious publications, can also result in a prison sentence of several years. Some provisions allow criminal prosecution for acts committed anywhere in the world.

Legislative Council President Andrew Leung said in the morning that he believed all lawmakers were honored to have taken part in this “historic mission.” Council presidents usually choose not to take part in such votes. However, this time Leung cast his vote on this occasion.

John Burns, honorary professor of politics and public administration at the University of Hong Kong, said the trial reflected the city’s “disability accountability system which has been deliberately weakened”.

He said the lawmakers had studied the bill in detail and the government had adopted some changes suggested by the lawmakers. However, during the debate, Burns said many lawmakers were focused on ways to expand the state’s influence on national security issues and increase penalties for related crimes. He added that the executive authorities would be happy to accommodate them.

“For those who care about good government, the process is disappointing, but not surprising given the centrally imposed changes since 2020,” Burns said.

Simon Young, a professor at the University of Hong Kong School of Law, said lawmakers did more than just “sign off” on the law, pointing out that officials held long meetings to clarify and amend the bill. But Young said lawmakers might have sought expert advice in the past.

“It is regrettable that this did not happen on this occasion,” he said.

But Beijing’s liaison office in Hong Kong said on Tuesday the legislation signals that a strong “firewall” has been built for the city’s stability and prosperity, allowing it to focus on promoting economic development and improving people’s livelihoods to concentrate. Lee also said other countries have enacted laws to address risks when necessary.

Hong Kong’s political scene has changed dramatically since massive street protests in 2019 that challenged China’s rule over the semi-autonomous territory and the imposition of Beijing’s national security law.

Many leading activists were prosecuted and others sought refuge abroad. Influential pro-democracy media outlets like Apple Daily and Stand News were shut down. The crackdown sparked an exodus of disaffected young professionals and middle-class families to the United States, Britain, Canada and Taiwan.

Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, the Basic Law, requires the city to enact a homegrown national security law. An earlier attempt in 2003 sparked a massive street protest involving half a million people and led to the law, known locally as Article 23, being shelved. There were no such protests against the current draft law, which is primarily due to the deterrent effect of the existing security law.

The governments of China and Hong Kong say the law enacted by Beijing has restored stability after the 2019 protests.

Officials insist the new security law balances security with the protection of rights and freedoms. The city government said it was necessary to prevent a repeat of the protests and that only “an extremely small minority” of residents would be affected.

The new law imposes harsh penalties on people convicted of certain crimes for endangering national security if they are found to be collaborating with foreign governments or organizations rather than acting on their own. For example, it targets those who damage public infrastructure in order to endanger the state and can be punished with 20 years in prison or, if they collaborate with external forces, with life imprisonment. In 2019, protesters occupied Hong Kong airport and vandalized train stations.

Business owners and journalists have expressed fears that such a sweeping law could impact their daily work.

Observers are watching closely to see whether authorities expand enforcement to other professional areas and how this will affect Hong Kongers’ freedoms.

The passage of the bill quickly met with criticism.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Türk, condemned the accelerated passage of the bill as “a retrograde step to protect human rights in Hong Kong.”

British Foreign Secretary David Cameron said in a statement that “broad definitions of national security and foreign interference will make it more difficult for those living, working and doing business in Hong Kong” and continue the “erosion of freedoms” there .

The US State Department said during a daily briefing that the law “could accelerate the closure of Hong Kong’s once-open society” and expressed concerns about the vagueness of its wording. Spokesman Vedant Patel said the department would analyze the law’s potential risks to U.S. citizens and businesses. He declined to say whether the U.S. would take action, as some U.S. lawmakers have called for.

The White House had no immediate reaction to the Hong Kong security law when press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre was asked by reporters aboard Air Force One on Tuesday.

Rep. Chris Smith and Sen. Jeff Merkley, who lead a congressional panel on China, called on the Biden administration to sanction Hong Kong officials over the new legislation, which they said “further restricts fundamental freedoms and strips away due process rights, “making Hong Kong less safe for residents and U.S. businesses.”

Michael McCaul, the chairman of the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a statement that China’s takeover of the city’s legal, economic and political system “makes clear that Hong Kong is no longer a safe place for anyone living in Democracy believes, still a viable place to conduct global business.”

Associated Press writers Didi Tang and Seung Min Kim in Washington and Sylvia Hui in London contributed to this report.

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