Speaking after the annual flag raising ceremony on Wednesday, Hong Kong’s top official, Chief Executive Carrie Lam, said the law is a “crucial step to ending chaos and violence that has occurred over the past few months” in the city.
“The national security law is the most important development in securing ties between China and the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region since the handover,” she said, framing criticism of the law as “vicious attacks.”
In vague language, the law criminalizes secession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with foreign powers. People who are convicted of such crimes can face sentences up to life in prison.
Activists have vowed to demonstrate against the law on Wednesday — traditionally a day of protests in the city. For the first time since handover, however, police have not given permission to protesters to hold peaceful demonstrations.
Large red and yellow signs appeared on barges in the city’s harbor reading: “To celebrate the national security law.”
There was a heavy police presence across Hong Kong’s central district and around the city’s Legislative Council on Wednesday morning. The night before police commanders were told in a training session that anybody seen waving an independence flag or chanting for independence will be arrested, a police source said. In addition, the source said anybody searched and found to have independence flags in their possession will be arrested.
Nevertheless, a handful of protesters gathered in Wan Chai district, near to where the flag raising ceremony was held, and could be heard chanting “the people will never forget” and “smash the national security law.”
Here are some of the key takeaways of the law:
- The law establishes four new offenses of secession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with foreign powers. The maximum penalty for each is life imprisonment.
- The Chinese central government will establish its own law enforcement presence in Hong Kong, labeled the “Office for Safeguarding National Security.”
- A secretive national security committee for Hong Kong will also be established, comprised of Hong Kong government officials and an adviser appointed by the Chinese central government. According to a summary published by the Hong Kong government, this group’s work “shall not be disclosed to the public,” and “decisions by the Committee shall not be amenable to judicial review.”
- Activities such as damaging public transport and public services “in order to pursue political agenda” can be considered terrorism — a provision that appears to target protesters who last year disrupted traffic and the city’s infrastructure.
- A terrorism charge can also include the vaguely worded provision of “other dangerous activities which seriously jeopardize public health, safety or security.”
- The law targets perceived foreign interference in Hong Kong. Throughout the protests, the Chinese government blamed “foreign forces” for interfering in the city’s affairs. The law states that anyone who “steals, spies, obtains with payment, or unlawfully provides state secrets or intelligence” to a foreign country, institution, organization or individual will be guilty of an offense under collusion with foreign powers.
- The law also makes it an offense for people to call on a foreign country, institution, organization or individual to impose sanctions or blockades on Hong Kong. The US said it would impose visa restrictions on current and former Chinese officials over Hong Kong.
- Working with a foreign government, institution, organization or individual to incite hatred against the Hong Kong or Chinese Central government is now a offense.
- The law can also be applied to non-permanent residents in Hong Kong and those who are in violation of the law will be deported, regardless of conviction. It also applies to non residents overseas who violate the national security law while abroad. This raises the prospect of foreign nationals being charged for suspected crimes committed while overseas should they visit the territory.
- Those convicted of a national security crime in court cannot stand for elections or hold public office.
- Hong Kong’s Chief Executive now has the power to appoint judges to handle cases related to national security. National security cases involving state secrets can be tried without a jury.
- Hong Kong courts will oversee national security cases but Beijing can take over prosecution in certain circumstances, applying Chinese law and prosecution standards.
- However the law does not make clear whether the cases Beijing rules on can be held in the mainland. The anti-government protests last year were sparked over a proposed law that would allow extradition to mainland China.
- Trials will be held in an open court but when the case involves “state secrets or public order” it can be moved behind closed doors.
- A new national security unit will be set up in the Hong Kong Police Force that will have the power to search properties, intercept information and perform covert surveillance without a warrant. It can also recruit members from outside of Hong Kong — potentially allowing mainland officers to operate in the city.
- The law also directs the Hong Kong government, along with the new commission, to strengthen its management over foreign news agencies and non-government organizations.
- Ultimately, the national security law trumps local laws: the new legislation states that if there is a conflict with existing Hong Kong law, the national security law will prevail.
Opponents of the law say it marks the end of the “one country, two systems” — a principle by which Hong Kong has retained limited democracy and civil liberties since coming under Chinese control.
Crucially, those freedoms include the right to assembly, a free press, and an independent judiciary, rights that are not enjoyed on the Chinese mainland.
Jimmy Lai, a Hong Kong media tycoon known for his outspoken support of the city’s pro-democracy movement, said the law “spells a death knell to Hong Kong because it supersedes our law and our rule of law.”
Rights group Amnesty International said the legislation “represents the greatest threat to human rights in the city’s recent history.”
“The speed and secrecy with which China has pushed through this legislation intensifies the fear that Beijing has calculatingly created a weapon of repression to be used against government critics, including people who are merely expressing their views or protesting peacefully,” said the head of Amnesty International’s China Team, Joshua Rosenzweig.
United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said it was a “sad day for Hong Kong, and for freedom-loving people across China” with the imposition of the national security legislation in Hong Kong.
He said the law “destroys the territory’s autonomy and one of China’s greatest achievements.”
CNN’s James Griffiths, Roger Clark, Karina Tsui, Jadyn Sham, Vanesse Chan, Chermaine Lee, Kylie Atwood, Philip Wang contributed.