Hong Kong passes controversial new security law broadly defining treason and insurrection

Hong Kong lawmakers voted on a proposed domestic security law required under Article 23 of the Basic Law on March 19, 2024. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP. Used with permission.

The original version of this report was written by Mercedes Hutton and published in Hong Kong Free Press (HKFP) on March 19, 2024. The following edited version has been published on Global Voices as part of a content partnership agreement with HKFP.

Hong Kong’s opposition-free legislature has unanimously passed new domestic security legislation, making treason, insurrection and sabotage punishable by up to life in prison and rejecting Western criticism that the law would further restrict the city’s freedoms.

Lawmakers gathered in the Legislative Council (LegCo) Chamber on March 19 to vote on the Safeguarding National Security Bill, dubbed Article 23, just days after a draft was introduced to the legislature. All 89 legislators voted in favour of the bill’s passage.

In an unusual move, LegCo President Andrew Leung also cast a vote in favour of the bill to mark what he described as “the utmost importance” of the law.

Chief Executive John Lee entered the LegCo Chamber after the passage of the bill to address lawmakers in Cantonese:

Today is a historical moment in Hong Kong, a historical moment we have waited 26 years, eight months and 19 days for… Today, Hong Kong finally completed its constitutional duty of legislating Article 23 of the Basic Law. We live up to the expectations of the central government and our country.

The law will come into force on March 23, Lee added.

The city had devoted 30 days to the public consultation of the draft law during the Lunar New Year, and lawmakers had spent 12 days debating it in the LegCo.

Since the bill committee first met on March 8, lawmakers spent about  50 hours discussing the proposed laws.

During a seven-hour second reading of the bill that began at 9 am on March 19, all 89 legislators expressed their support for the law, with several saying it was an “honour” to be involved in the “historic milestone.”

Following the lawmakers’ speeches, the Secretary for Security, Chris Tang, thanked them for supporting the bill  in such a “highly efficient” manner  “without reservation.”

Article 23 offences

The law targets five types of offences — treason, insurrection (including incitement and sedition), theft of state secrets and espionage, sabotage and external interference. Those convicted of the first three face life in prison, while anyone found guilty of sedition could be jailed for up to seven years — or 10 if they had colluded with an “external force” — up from two years previously.

It also gives new powers to the police and courts to extend the pre-charge detention period for those held on suspicion of endangering national security to up to 16 days, and to restrict detainees’ access to lawyers.

The new law is mandated in Article 23 of the city’s mini-constitution. Authorities have said it is necessary to plug the “loopholes” left after Beijing imposed its own national security legislation on the city in June 2020, following large-scale protests and unrest in 2019.

Protests erupted in June that year over a proposed amendment to Hong Kong’s extradition bill that would have allowed criminal suspects to be transferred to mainland China for trial. They escalated into sometimes violent displays of dissent against police behaviour amid calls for democracy and anger over Beijing’s encroachment.

The demonstrations were cited by the government as justification for why further security legislation was necessary, saying in a consultation document that “plain deficiencies in the work on safeguarding national security resulted in the social chaos… ultimately causing the Hong Kong version of ‘colour revolution’ in 2019.”

Public opposition to the legislation in Hong Kong has been muted, with the government hailing a nearly 97 per cent support rate from submissions received during a one-month consultation period. However, international rights groups and governments overseas have expressed concerns that it may further erode freedoms in the city, which has seen dozens of pro-democracy figures detained and its civil society shrink since Beijing’s law was enacted.

The government has said the new law is comparable to security laws in Western countries, such as the UK, the US and Canada.

However, the Hong Kong Bar Association earlier called for clearer provisions in the legislation, saying uncertainty about how it may be applied could have “a chilling effect on lawful conduct.” The city’s largest press group, the Hong Kong Journalists Association, warned that the definition of state secrets in the proposed law was too broad and may impede legitimate reporting.

In 2003, when the government first tried to push through legislation under Article 23, 500,000 Hongkongers took to the streets in peaceful protest, and it failed to secure majority support in the LegCo.

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