The new national security law China imposed on Hong Kong, with the aim of ending opposition to the ruling Communist Party in the former British colony, is as “devastating” as some critics feared, a human rights activist said on Wednesday.
Conceived in secret and passed Tuesday without serious public comment, the law, which includes 66 articles and more than 7,000 words, establishes a vast security apparatus in Hong Kong and gives Beijing broad powers to combat a variety of political crimes, including separatism and collusion.
It is likely to be the start of a new era for Hong Kong, experts say, in which civil liberties are tightly restricted and loyalty to the party is paramount. “All in all, this is a Hong Kong takeover,” said Jerome A. Cohen, a law professor at New York University who specializes in the Chinese legal system.
Here is a guide to the new rules.
The law targets protesters with severe penalties, including life imprisonment.
The security law directly targets the vigorous anti-government protests that have convulsed Hong Kong over the past year, prescribing severe penalties for tactics commonly used by protesters.
While leading a month-long campaign last year to resist what they called Beijing’s meddling in Hong Kong’s civil liberties, protesters worked to disrupt the city’s reputation for efficiency and order. Some groups attacked police stations, destroyed shops and restaurants, and briefly paralyzed the airport.
Under the new law, damage to government buildings would be considered an act of subversion punishable by life in “serious” cases. Sabotage of transportation would be considered a life-threatening terrorist activity if it harms other people or causes significant damage to public or private property.
The four main crimes in the law – separatism, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign countries – are worded ambiguously and give authorities wide power to attack activists who criticize the party, activists say.
“The law is devastating because it seems to have no limits,” said Sophie Richardson, China director of Human Rights Watch. “Hong Kong activists, accustomed to operating in a mostly rights-friendly environment, now face a terrifying vacuum.”
Beijing now has broad authority to intervene in Hong Kong’s legal system.
Hong Kong residents have long appreciated the city’s independent judiciary, a legacy of British colonial rule that contrasted with secret, party-controlled courts in mainland China.
Under the security law, however, Beijing has been given ample freedom to interfere in Hong Kong’s legal affairs. The legislation will establish a formidable network of Beijing-controlled security forces in Hong Kong, including a national security agency, a national security committee and a special prosecutor’s office.
Under the law, the Beijing central government can intervene in national security cases, especially during crises or if a case is considered “complex.” The law says that defendants in major cases could be tried in the courts of mainland China, where convictions are generally secured and penalties are often severe. Trials involving state secrets could be closed to the media and the public.
Experts said the law could bring Hong Kong many common harsh legal practices in mainland China. Generally speaking, the law says that the rights of suspects and accused persons must be respected in national security cases. But aside from the presumption of innocence and the right to defend oneself, it does not offer much clarity about those protections, leaving open the danger that some of the harsh and inexplicable practices common on the continent could spread to Hong Kong.
“As a national security suspect, you can be held incommunicado for up to six months, subject to torture, forced confession, without access to a lawyer, family or friends, before the police decide whether to prosecute you for a crime,” El said. Mr. Cohen, a law professor, talks about common practices in mainland China.
The law sends a warning to the US and other countries.
Beijing has repeatedly tried to portray the riots in Hong Kong as the work of foreign countries, especially the United States, accusing them of participating in a plot to wreak havoc in China and overthrow the Communist Party. Chinese officials have spread unfounded conspiracy theories suggesting that Western countries are funding and directing activists.
Various parts of the security legislation point to the perceived role of foreigners in political activism in Hong Kong.
The new rules apply even to those who are not Hong Kong residents, suggesting that foreigners who support Hong Kong independence or demand the imposition of sanctions on the Chinese government could be prosecuted upon entering Hong Kong or China continental.
The law also states that national security officials in Hong Kong “will take the necessary steps to strengthen the management” of foreign non-governmental organizations and the media in the territory. And, the legislation does not offer details.
The legislation appears to be aimed at silencing criticism of the party’s policies in Hong Kong among human rights activists, journalists and government officials outside of China, experts said.
“The broad extraterritorial scope of the law could have a chilling effect on foreign NGOs, limiting their ability to partner with Hong Kong groups on sensitive issues such as human rights and political reform,” said Thomas E. Kellogg, executive director of the Asian Law Center. at Georgetown University.
Kellogg said more restrictions are likely to emerge in the coming months for non-governmental groups working on issues such as human rights, the rule of law and democratic development in Hong Kong.
The provisions targeting foreigners are likely to worsen tensions between China and the United States, with relations at their lowest point in decades. The Trump administration has promised a series of punishments in retaliation for national security legislation, including visa restrictions and limits on the export of defense technology.
On Tuesday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo criticized the passage of the legislation and tweeted: “The CCP’s draconian national security law ends the freedom of Hong Kong and exposes the party’s greatest fear: free will and the free thought of his own people. “
He also said in a statement: “The United States will not stand idly by while China swallows Hong Kong in its authoritarian jaws.”