“The end of Hong Kong as we know it”: China’s new security law explained

Hong Kong skyline from above

On June 30, an hour before the 23rd anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover to China from British rule, Beijing’s controversial new security law came into effect. Activists describe this new law as ‘the end of Hong Kong as we know it.’ 

First, a recap of the last couple decades: In 1997, an agreement was made that the former British colony was guaranteed 50 years of effective self-rule under Chinese sovereignty with a mini-constitution known as the Hong Kong Basic Law and a “one country, two systems” policy. This agreement was intended to protect some of Hong Kongers’ democratic rights, especially their freedoms of assembly and speech. Attempts from Beijing to exert control over the territory’s leadership have led to mass civil unrest over the years. 

“Freedoms, equality before the law and judicial justice are widely shared values among Hong Kong people across generations,” Ming Sing, associate professor of social science at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, told TIME in a 2019 interview. “Beijing’s suppression of those values will invite persistent resistance.”

Political resistance from Hong Kong’s youth has been a continuous pattern in the region. Hong Kong is the site of the largest annual candlelight vigil to commemorate the Tiananmen Square Massacre, when Chinese tanks rolled into central Beijing to crack down on a student-led protest calling for political change. Hundreds, if not thousands, of students died in Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989.

On July 1, 2003, more than half a million people marched through the city in opposition to Beijing’s attempt to introduce Article 23, a law prohibiting treason, secession, sedition and subversion against the Chinese government. Article 23 was named after an article in Hong Kong’s Basic Law requiring a national security law for the region. Without enough political support, the bill was shelved indefinitely.

The Umbrella Movement of 2014, named after the umbrellas that protesters used to protect themselves from police pepper spray, was a series of protests demanding electoral reform and universal suffrage. Pro-democracy activists rejected proposals to grant universal suffrage in elections for the city’s leader, but only allowing voters to select from a list of candidates approved by Beijing.  Student leader Joshua Wong, the 17-year-old face of the movement, was arrested multiple times for his involvement. Wong also served as secretary-general of the pro-democracy party Demosisto, which has since disbanded following the implementation of the new security law.

Last summer, a proposal to amend extradition laws to allow suspects to be tried in China sparked unprecedented demonstrations in the streets. On June 9 of last year, more than a million people attended the initial march against the extradition law, while an estimated two million people (of Hong Kong’s seven million) joined another a week later. 

Now, China has stepped in to ensure that Hong Kong has a national security law. Before it was enacted, the details of the new law were kept hidden from members of the Hong Kong legislative council as well as the territory’s Chief Executive, Carrie Lam. Hours before it came into force, Lam told the UN Human Rights Council that the law would fill a “gaping hole” and not undermine Hong Kong’s autonomy or its independent judiciary. She also promised it would not be retroactive.

The new security law has 66 articles and criminalizes any act of secession, subversion, terrorism or collusion. To break that down: secession is breaking away from the country, subversion is undermining the power or authority of the central government, terrorism refers to using violence or intimidation against people, and collusion includes conspiring with or lobbying foreign or external forces. The key provisions of the law include that these crimes of dissent are punishable by a maximum sentence of life in prison and tiers of three-, five- and ten-year minimums. Damaging public transport facilities can be considered terrorism. Beijing will establish a new security office in Hong Kong with its own law enforcement personnel, neither of which are under the jurisdiction of local authority. Hong Kong will have to establish an additional national security commission to enforce the laws, with a Beijing-appointed advisor, and Hong Kong’s chief executive will have the power to appoint judges to hear national security cases. The law also grants Beijing power over how the law should be interpreted, as opposed to any Hong Kong judicial or policy body. People suspected of breaking the law can be wire-tapped and put under surveillance. Beijing’s management and oversight of foreign non-governmental organizations and news agencies will be strengthened. The law will also apply to non-permanent residents and any people from outside Hong Kong who are not permanent residents. 

“It is clear that the law will have a severe impact on freedom of expression, if not personal security, on the people of Hong Kong,” Professor Johannes Chan, a legal scholar at the University of Hong Kong, told the BBC before the passage of the law. Instead of extraditing suspects from Hong Kong to be tried in Beijing, “they are imposing the People’s Republic of China’s criminal system onto the Hong Kong common law system, leaving them with complete discretion to decide who should fall into which system.”

Some have called the legality of this law’s implementation into question. Normally, Beijing cannot directly pass laws for Hong Kong. In this case, Article 18 of Hong Kong’s Basic Law only allows the People’s Republic of China to directly apply laws relating to defense, foreign affairs, or “other matters outside the limits of autonomy” of Hong Kong. 

“The combination of Beijing’s power to directly enact laws for Hong Kong and interpret those laws as widely as they wish spells the death of the “One Country, Two Systems” principle, and any semblance of political and legal autonomy that the region still enjoys,” says Vincent Wong of the pro-democracy Lausan Collective in Hong Kong.

Pro-democracy lawmaker Dennis Kwok has described the law as “the most devastating thing to happen to Hong Kong since the Handover.”