Hong Kong leader John Lee announced on Tuesday the start of a public consultation period on proposed new national security legislation, sparking concerns over eroding freedoms.
In 2020, China imposed a sweeping national security law on Hong Kong that criminalized secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces. The law was seen as eroding the freedoms and autonomy promised to the city when it returned to Chinese rule in 1997.
There were widespread protests in 2019-2020 against perceived Chinese encroachment, which led Beijing to bypass Hong Kong’s legislature and enact the law. Since then, dozens of pro-democracy activists, journalists and others have been arrested under the law.
New Legislation Proposed
Now, Hong Kong is aiming to enact its own national security legislation under Article 23 of its Basic Law constitution. John Lee said Tuesday that a four-month public consultation would gather opinions on the law. Specifics remain unclear, but it could further limit speech and political opposition.
US and UK officials have expressed grave concerns, and activist groups warn the moves may “formalize authoritarian rule.” But Chinese and Hong Kong officials say new laws are necessary to safeguard stability. Surveys also indicate strong public backing.
Details and Timeline Still Uncertain
Hong Kong already outlaws treason, secession, sedition and subversion under existing colonial-era laws. But Article 23 requires laws against treason as well as prohibiting foreign political organizations from conducting activities and local political bodies from establishing ties with overseas counterparts.
Lee said Tuesday the legislation aims to prevent, curb and punish acts endangering national security. The public can offer views on what new special enforcement and judicial bodies may be needed.
|January – May 2024: Public consultation
|Mid-2024: Bill drafting
|Late 2024: Introduction to Hong Kong legislature
|2025: Possible enactment
The government will also consider whether existing laws need amending and if new ones are required regarding areas like collusion with foreign forces and terrorism. Penalties could be increased to life imprisonment.
Reaction and Concerns
The moves have sparked criticism both locally and abroad. Opponents fear it will further limit freedoms following mass arrests of pro-democracy figures under the 2020 law. Human rights groups warn Hong Kong risks becoming a “police state.”
But Hong Kong and Beijing officials say national security is purely an internal affair and foreign criticism amounts to interference. Chinese officials have blamed “anti-China radicals” for stirring unrest and threatened countermeasures against any sanctions. Surveys also show high public support for security legislation.
Still, legal scholars are urging the government to clearly explain concepts in the proposed laws and how they will uphold rights like free speech. Business chambers have also voiced worries about how companies’ operations could be affected.
What Comes Next
It remains uncertain exactly what shape the new legislation will take and how strictly it will be applied when enacted. But the public consultation and drafting process launching this week represents a significant development.
There will likely be intense debate both in Hong Kong and internationally around the specifics of the bill. But given the current political climate, some observers believe eventual passage is inevitable barring major unforeseen events.
Beijing will be closely watching for any public opposition. And authorities may preemptively launch investigations or arrests even before the law is passed to discourage resistance. What is clear is Hong Kong appears set to undergo another major shift tightening political space under Chinese authority.
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