What Is Hong Kong’s New Draconian Security Law Article 23?

Now in Hong Kong, possessing a book critical of the Chinese government can mean years in prison.

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People protest during a rally against Article 23 legislation are pictured in Causeway Bay. Photo: Getty Images

Hong Kong lawmakers passed a new security legislation on March 19, that will essentially give more power to the government to clamp down on dissent, by including new offences like external interference and insurrection and penalising them with life sentences.

The law, under Article 23, has been decades in the making but was resisted for a long time by protesters who feared the legislation’s effect on civil liberties in Hong Kong, a special administrative region in China that has become increasingly under the thumb of Beijing.

What are the offences included in the new law? What are their punishments?

The new law allows the government to erode future challenges to its rule, by punishing treason and insurrection with strict forms of punishment up to life imprisonment. It focuses on five types of crimes: treason, insurrection, sabotage that endangers national security, external interference in Hong Kong’s affairs, and espionage and theft of state secrets.  The punishment for treason, insurrection and sabotage that endangers national security is life sentence in jail, while those found to be guilty of espionage and sabotage – including cyber attacks – can be imprisoned for up to 20 years. 

Those found guilty of collaborating with "external forces" to influence or interfere with national and local authorities, including receiving financial support or direction from these "external forces", which could include foreign governments, political organisations or individuals, can be punished with life imprisonment as well.

Further, existing sedition offences have been expanded to include “inciting hatred against the Chinese Communist Party leadership,” which is punishable by up to 10 years in jail and it is not necessary for the prosecution to prove intent to incite public disorder or violence.

Hong Kong legislators have also been given the power to create and punish new offences that arise in any “unforeseen circumstances”. Even at the time of arrest and after that, the Hong Kong police will now be allowed to detain suspects without charge for a longer time, from 48 hours to 16 days. After detention, suspects can be prevented by police from meeting lawyers, and those granted bail may have their movement and communication restricted. 

These rules can also apply to actions that take place outside Hong Kong as well – by both residents and businesses.

Why has China introduced this law?

Hong Kong leader John Lee defended the introduction of the law by saying that such a legislation is needed to fulfill a long-overdue duty, and often referred to the 2019 protests to justify that need, saying it will keep Hong Kong safe against “potential sabotage” and “undercurrents that try to create troubles” — particularly lurking ideas about Hong Kong independence. Some foreign agents might still be active in Hong Kong, he added.

“This is a law to tell people not to attack us,” Lee said.

What happened in 2019?

The 2019–2020 Hong Kong protests were a series of demonstrations against the Hong Kong government's introduction of a bill to amend the Fugitive Offenders Ordinance in regard to extradition. The Bill would have allowed extradition of criminal suspects from Hong Kong to mainland China. Critics of the Bill worried that it would target dissidents, activists and journalists in the country, which has a history of suppressing protests.

While the Bill was later withdrawn, eventually protestors also demanded democratic reform, and an inquiry into alleged police brutality during the protests. It was the largest series of demonstrations in the history of Hong Kong. 

Why has the new law been criticised?

Human rights organisations have raised concerns about the broadness of the offences like “external interference”.  This could lead to the prosecution of activists who interacted with overseas individuals or organisations and be “framed as endangering national security”,  Amnesty International's China Director Sarah Brooks told AP.

The organisation submitted a 34-page analysis on the Bill to the government, and found that the offences and changes to investigatory powers are not necessary nor proportionate for a legitimate national security need and are contrary to Hong Kong’s human rights obligations.

“Amnesty recognizes that every government has the prerogative and duty to protect its citizens and all others subject to its jurisdiction, and that some jurisdictions have specific security concerns. But these may never be used as an excuse to deny people the freedom to express different political views and to exercise their other human rights as protected by international human rights law and standards,” it said in a statement.