Hong Kong woke up to a new reality on Wednesday, after China began enforcing a sweeping security law that could reshape the financial hub’s character 23 years after it took control of the former British colony.
The law’s tough provisions went beyond what many investors, democracy advocates and even pro-Beijing politicians feared, prompting warnings that it would cast a chilling effect over free speech and political activities related to Hong Kong. Leaders in Beijing and Hong Kong did nothing to allay those worries during briefings to explain the 35-page law unveiled as it came into effect late Tuesday, even as thousands hit the streets in defiance.
“The law is a ‘sword of Damocles’ hanging above extremely few criminals who are severely endangering national security,” Zhang Xiaoming, the deputy director of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, told reporters Wednesday in Beijing. “The law will deter foreign forces who try to interfere with Hong Kong affairs. The law is a turning point to put Hong Kong back on its track.”
The law’s vague language generated confusion about what activities were allowed, adding uncertainty for some businesses that flocked to Hong Kong in part because of its independent British-inspired legal system. While some investors said the measure would bring stability following sometimes-violent protests last year, others expected to see a flight of capital and talent to places that uphold the rule of law. Markets were closed for a public holiday.
The Trump administration vowed additional “strong actions” if Beijing didn’t reverse course, potentially inflicting more damage on a city facing its deepest recession on record with unemployment at a 15-year high. The U.K. accused Beijing of going back on its promise in a 1984 treaty to preserve Hong Kong’s “high degree of autonomy.”
“The feeling is that, all of a sudden, the ‘one country, two systems’ arrangement has disappeared and Hong Kong is truly just another part of China,” said Charles Mok, a member of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council who represents the information technology industry. “It’s ironic that passing this national security law may make the international community feel that Hong Kong is less secure.”
Police on Wednesday quickly boasted of their first seven arrests under the law—including a protester with a Hong Kong independence flag—out of 180 people taken into custody. They used tear gas, water cannons and pepper spray balls to quell protests that erupted downtown, where demonstrators carrying umbrellas and American flags clashed with officers.
Prominent activists, including former student leader Joshua Wong, joined the protests even while cutting ties with political groups Tuesday in an apparent attempt to avoid implicating each other. Pro-democracy lawmakers have expressed concern the law will be used to bar them from seeking office in a legislative election in September.
“We don’t know if there will be any more opportunities for us to go on the streets for the same cause,” said a 31-year-old freelancer who gave his name as Law. “Maybe we won’t be able to protest ever again for the rest of our lives.”
The legislation passed by lawmakers in China and signed by President Xi Jinping allows for potential life sentences for crimes including subversion of state power and collusion with foreign forces. It extends to actions committed by anyone, whether or not they are Hong Kong residents, anywhere in the world and appears to cover even non-violent tactics employed by protesters in a wave of unrest that gripped the former British colony last year.
For instance, Zhang said that those who travel overseas to seek sanctions against China could be prosecuted under the collusion provision. He also said people who spread “malicious rumors,” such as allegations that riot police killed passengers during a controversial sweep of train station in August, could be liable under provisions against “provoking hatred” against the government.
In a speech to mark the anniversary, Chief Executive Carrie Lam called it the “most important development” in relations between Hong Kong and China’s central government since the city’s handover. In a 70-minute press briefing, she and members of her team provided little clarity on what would be considered an offense under the law.
“I want to emphasize, the maximum penalty of principle offenders of the four crimes is life imprisonment, so don’t challenge the law,” said John Lee, Hong Kong’s security secretary. “Please do not try to test our bottom line.”
|Highlights from Hong Kong’s national security law:|
|– All four crimes carry maximum sentences of life.
– Applies to actions after the law’s implementation.
– Covers Hong Kong residents or companies and non-residents anywhere.
– Terrorism charges include “serious disruption” of transportation networks.
– Collusion provision includes advocates of foreign sanctions.
– Subversion includes overthrowing Hong Kong government organs and attacking its offices.
– Violators are barred from seeking or holding public office for an unspecified period.
– Gives Beijing power to prosecute “complex” cases relating to foreign influence or other “serious circumstances.”
– Allows closed trials in cases involving state secrets or other subjects “not fit for open trial.”
– Allows justice minister to opt out of jury trials in some cases.
– Grants immunity to Chinese agents performing duties in Hong Kong.
– Calls for stronger “management” of news agencies and foreign NGOs.
President Donald Trump warned last month that if Beijing didn’t back down the U.S. would start rolling back Hong Kong’s preferential trade status, while the U.K. and Taiwan have offered new paths to residency for the city’s inhabitants. On Monday, the Trump administration made it harder to export sensitive American technology to Hong Kong, and lawmakers are considering easing the rules for residents to enter the U.S. as refugees.
“There is broad, bipartisan concern about the behavior of the government in Beijing,” U.S. Senator Pat Toomey, a Pennsylvania Republican who is sponsoring legislation that could target banks that deal with officials responsible for eroding Hong Kong’s autonomy, told Bloomberg Television.
China didn’t publish the full draft law before its passage or allow a public debate, which is required under the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini-constitution. The process also bypassed Hong Kong’s elected Legislative Council, and Lam said earlier she hadn’t seen a draft of the law.
“Laws that would have fundamental differences to our way of life have been passed thousands of miles away by people we know nothing about, with contents of this legislation which we know nothing about,” pro-democracy lawmaker Dennis Kwok said at an evening briefing Tuesday. “That’s no way to treat a civilized, educated international city such as Hong Kong, but this is it. The way they’ve done it is the most ruthless, undignified assault on the freedom, human rights and the rule of law of Hong Kong.”
–With assistance from Peter Martin, Sharon Chen, Jing Li and Lucille Liu.
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