Wednesday, April 17, 2024
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Hong Kong’s new national security bill includes stiff penalties and more power to suppress dissent

HONG KONG — Hong Kong unveiled a new national security bill Friday that proposes up to life imprisonment for offenses like treason and insurrection, a move deepening worries over further erosion of the city’s freedoms after Beijing imposed a similar law four years ago that all but wiped out dissent.

The proposed law will expand the government’s power in stamping out future challenges to its rule, targeting espionage, external interference and protection of state secrets among others. Tougher punishment will be imposed on individuals who collude with external forces to carry out certain illegal acts, such as sabotage and sedition, compared to those who do so on their own.

Under a push by Hong Kong leader John Lee to finish the legislative process “at full speed,” lawmakers are set to begin their debate Friday in a meeting that was specially arranged to expedite it. The bill is expected to pass easily, possibly in weeks, in a legislature packed with Beijing loyalists following an electoral overhaul.

The legislature’s president, Andrew Leung, told reporters that the process was accelerated because the bill was necessary to safeguard national security.

“If you look at other countries, they enacted it within a day, two weeks, three weeks … So why can’t Hong Kong do it in a speedy manner? You tell me,” the pro-Beijing politician said.

Critics have warned the legislation will make Hong Kong’s legal framework increasingly similar to that of mainland China, and add to a decline in civil liberties that were promised to remain intact for 50 years when the former British colony returned to Chinese rule in 1997.

However, the government pointed to the massive anti-government protests that rocked the city in 2019 to justify its necessity, insisting it would only affect “an extremely small minority” of disloyal residents.

Under the new law, instigating a foreign country to invade China with force could be punished by a maximum penalty of life imprisonment as a treason offense. Committing violence while being reckless enough to endanger the city’s public safety as a whole could be considered insurrection.

The government also suggested harsher penalties when residents collude with foreign forces to commit certain offenses, as opposed to doing them independently.

If they damage public infrastructure, including the airport and other public means of transport, with the intent of endangering national security, maximum penalty is imprisonment for 20 years. But if they collude with an external force in doing so, they could be sentenced for life.

Similarly, those who commit a sedition offense face a jail term of seven years but colluding with an external force to carry out such acts increase that penalty to 10 years.

Its expansive definition of external forces include foreign governments and political parties, international organizations, and companies when their directors are obligated to act in accordance with the wishes of a foreign government.

Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, the Basic Law, requires the city to enact a homegrown national security law. But a previous attempt to pass a version of the law sparked a massive street protest that drew half a million people, and the legislation was shelved.

Huge protests against the current bill are unlikely to be repeated due to the chilling effect of the 2020 law. After it was enacted to quell the 2019 protests, many of the city’s leading pro-democracy activists have been arrested and others fled abroad. Dozens of civil society groups have been disbanded, and outspoken media outlets like Apple Daily and Stand News have been shut down.

During a one-month public comment period that ended last week, 98.6% of the views received by officials showed support, and only 0.72% opposed the proposals, the government said. The rest purely contain questions or opinions that cannot reflect the authors’ stance, it added.

But business people and journalists have expressed fear that a broadly framed law could criminalize their day-to-day work, especially when the proposed definition of state secrets concerning those linked to economic, social and technological developments.

Under the bill, maximum penalties related to state secret offenses range between three to 10 years. The government has sought to allay concerns by adding a public interest defense under specific conditions in the proposal.

John Burns, an honorary professor of politics and public administration at the University of Hong Kong, said how the courts will interpret the extent to which disclosure “manifestly outweighs” non-disclosure remains to be seen.

The bill, if passed as tabled, is likely to have chilling effect on local groups, Burns said, especially for political groups and public policy lobby groups which benefited from connections to their overseas counterparts.

“At least initially I expect them to be especially cautious about expanding links with similar groups overseas,” he said.

Officials were also planning to impose stiffer measures on those suspected to have endangered security. Those who were arrested but given bail could face a “movement restriction order” which limits the places they can live and enter, as well as prevent them from communicating with certain people.

Authorities would be empowered to target specific absconders with sanctions, such as preventing people from financially providing for, employing, leasing property, or starting businesses with them.

Prisoners convicted of national security offenses will also not be granted a reduction in their sentences until authorities are confident that an early release will not cause national security risks. This would apply to all national security prisoners, even those whose sentences were imposed prior to the bill.

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