New security law gives China sweeping powers over Hong Kong

New security law gives China sweeping powers over Hong Kong
China unveiled a contentious new law for Hong Kong late Tuesday that grants 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 signalled 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. 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 for the first time.

The text provided a far-reaching blueprint for authorities and 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 offences 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.

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, non-governmental 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:

— The law takes direct aim at the anti-government 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.

The unanimous vote 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 in June.

“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, 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.

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“They are doing whatever it takes to crack down on dissent and opposition here. It’s just unthinkable in the year 2020,” said 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.
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