New security law gives China sweeping powers over Hong Kong

Author : Chris Buckley

Source : The New York Times

The law, approved in Beijing with speed and secrecy and signed off by Xi Jinping, will tighten the Communist Party’s grip on Hong Kong after last year’s protests.
14:15, 1 July 2020

The protests in Hong Kong

China unveiled a contentious new law for Hong Kong late Tuesday that grants the authorities sweeping powers to crack down on opposition to Beijing at home and abroad with heavy prison sentences for vaguely defined political crimes.

The law’s swift approval in Beijing signaled the urgency that the Communist Party leader, Xi Jinping, has given to expanding his control over Hong Kong to quash pro-democracy protests that evolved last year into an increasingly confrontational challenge to Chinese rule.

The Hong Kong government issued the text of the legislation at 11 p.m. on Tuesday, after weeks of unusual secrecy surrounding the drafting of the law in Beijing. The law took effect immediately, even though the public was seeing it in full only for the first time.

The text provided a far-reaching blueprint for the authorities and the courts to suppress the city’s protest movement and for China’s national security apparatus to pervade many layers of Hong Kong’s society.

Ambiguously worded offenses of separatism, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign countries carry maximum penalties of life imprisonment. Inducing residents to hate the government in Beijing or Hong Kong is defined as a serious crime.

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A new Committee for Safeguarding National Security will be authorized to operate in total secrecy and be shielded from legal challenges. Its officials will be given the task of scrutinizing schools, corporations, nongovernmental organizations, news companies, and foreigners living in Hong Kong and abroad.

“It’s meant to suppress and oppress, and to frighten and intimidate Hong Kongers,” Claudia Mo, a pro-democracy lawmaker, said. “And they just might succeed in that.”

Other key details in the law include:

  • The law takes direct aim at the antigovernment protesters’ strategy of disruption. Last year, demonstrators paralyzed the airport briefly, vandalized the subway system and attacked police stations and surrounded government buildings. The law describes activities such as damaging government buildings and sabotaging public transportation as acts of subversion and terrorism, punishable with lengthy jail terms.

  • It allows Beijing to seize broad control in security cases, especially during crises. Suspects in security cases will mostly be held without bail. Trials involving state secrets could be closed to the media and the public, with few rights to trial by jury and with only the verdicts announced. Suspects in important cases can be sent to face trial in mainland China, where courts are opaque and often harsh.

  • The law focuses heavily on the perceived role of foreigners in Hong Kong’s unrest. It will impose harsh penalties on anyone who urges foreign countries to criticize or impose sanctions on the government. It targets former Hong Kong residents who have acquired foreign passports and are outspoken against the government, empowering officials to freeze their assets and impose fines.

The Chinese legislature approved the law a day before July 1, the politically charged anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover to China in 1997, which regularly draws pro-democracy protests. On the anniversary last year, a huge, peaceful demonstration gave way to violence when a small group of activists broke into Hong Kong’s legislature, smashing glass walls and spray-painting slogans on walls.

“Those who have stirred up trouble and broken this type of law in the past will hopefully watch themselves in the future,” Tam Yiu-chung, Hong Kong’s representative to the legislative group in China that reviewed the law, said in a television interview. “If they continue to defy the law, they will bear the consequences.”

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The unanimous vote on Tuesday by the National People’s Congress Standing Committee, an elite arm of China’s party-controlled legislature, came less than two weeks after the lawmakers first formally considered the legislation

Breaking from normal procedure, the committee did not release a draft of the law for public comment. Hong Kong’s activists, legal scholars and officials were left to debate or defend the bill based on details released by China’s state news media earlier this month.

“The fact that the Chinese authorities have now passed this law without the people of Hong Kong being able to see it tells you a lot about their intentions,” said Joshua Rosenzweig, the head of Amnesty International’s China team. “Their aim is to govern Hong Kong through fear from this point forward.”

At least two groups that have called for Hong Kong to become an independent state said they would stop operating in the city. Such groups remain in the minority in Hong Kong, but have drawn government scrutiny. Activists are also worried that the law could target those who peacefully call for true autonomy for the territory, as opposed to independence.

“They are doing whatever it takes to crack down on dissent and opposition here. It’s just unthinkable in the year 2020,” said Ms. Mo, the pro-democracy lawmaker. “This is a huge departure from civilization.”

Four senior members of Demosisto, a political organization in Hong Kong that has drawn disaffected young people, announced that they were quitting the group. They included Joshua Wong, a leader of the 2014 pro-democracy demonstrations known as the Umbrella Movement. The group later said it would disband.

“From now on, #Hongkong enters a new era of reign of terror,” Mr. Wong wrote on Twitter. Announcing his decision to leave Demosisto in a post on Facebook, he said: “I will continue to hold fast to my home — Hong Kong, until they silence and obliterate me from this land.”

Administrators of chat groups used by protesters on Telegram, a popular app, sent messages urging users not to panic but also said that they should purge their devices of data, contacts and photos should they join any future protests.

The chill spread even to some businesses that have openly supported the democracy movement. The Lung Mun Cafe, a well-known Cantonese diner that provided free meals to student protesters last year, said on Tuesday that it would no longer be affiliated with the yellow economy, so named because of the color of umbrellas that demonstrators once used to defend themselves against streams of tear gas.

“Lung Mun Cafe has more or less accompanied the people of Hong Kong on this ‘path against tyranny,’” Cheung Chun-kit, the owner of the cafe chain, said in a statement posted on Facebook. But he explained that he was pulling out of the yellow economy because “the national security law has made me re-examine my path this year.”

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The city’s police force has moved quickly to stop peaceful protests against the security law in recent days, arresting dozens of people, including 53 demonstrators on Sunday. On Tuesday, a small group of protesters gathered in a luxury mall in Central, the main downtown district, and chanted: “We will fight till our last breath!”

A few dozen pro-Beijing supporters wearing white shirts and blue caps gathered in a park to celebrate the passage of the law. They celebrated by waving large Chinese flags as they uncorked bottles of sparkling wine and drank from plastic cups.

The police have denied applications from three groups to hold protest marches on Wednesday, the anniversary of the handover, making it the first time the authorities have refused to allow a demonstration on that date. Some opposition lawmakers and democracy advocates have urged people to take to the streets despite the ban.

“The July 1 march tomorrow will show that we will absolutely not accept this evil national security law,” Wu Chi-wai, a pro-democracy lawmaker, said on Tuesday. “Even if they try to crush us, we will use all kinds of ways and methods to ensure that Hong Kong people’s voices and opinions can be expressed.”

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