Hong Kong's Chief Executive John Lee, fifth foreground left, pose for photographs with lawmakers following the passing of the Basic Law Article 23 legislation at the Legislative Council in Hong Kong, Tuesday, March 19, 2024.
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New security law firmly aligns Hong Kong with Chinese Communist Party ideology

Speedy and resounding enactment by Legislative Council was a show of might, says Katja Drinhausen. Party concepts and terminology take center stage in the city’s law making.

Since Beijing introduced its draconian Hong Kong National Security Law in 2020, Hong Kong’s authorities have arrested or scared into exile key opposition figures. Stringent electoral reforms ensured Hong Kong’s parliament is now stacked with “patriots”. China’s leadership is reaping the fruits of its efforts: Hong Kong’s Legislative Council on March 19 passed the city’s homegrown Safeguarding National Security Ordinance (SNSO) by 89 votes to zero in a record-setting eleven days – a far cry from its humiliating climb down twenty-one years ago in the face of public protests against a first attempt to implement national security legislation, as required under article 23 of Hong Kong’s 1997 Basic Law. 

The exclusively pro-Beijing lawmakers of the Legislative Council – in power since the first opposition-free elections of 2021 – provided little pushback against the over 200 pages touching on the city’s core rights and freedoms. They instead sought to outdo each other in voicing support for the legislation that will increase the power of authorities to crack down on a broad spectrum of opposition, real or perceived. Its speedy passage may have been to forestall any vestiges of criticism, especially from abroad – but it was also a show of might. Hong Kong went through the motions of democracy, but the decision was already made. State media reported on the outcome twenty minutes before delegates even cast their votes.

Ideological concepts of the CCP now define Hong Kong’s law making

The commitment of Hong Kong’s government and legislature to the implementation of Beijing's vision has significant implications. The official reasoning provided for the drafting the SNSO shows that the ideological concepts and terminology of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) now define the city’s law making. Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee praised Xi Jinping's “holistic view of national security” – one comprising twenty fields, from politics and society (regime security, preventing collective action and foreign influence) to securing China’s economic, technological, cyber development and its overseas interests. A concept designed to implement the CCP’s policy objectives, with little consideration for individual or private sector rights. 

The new security law is another blow to civil liberties in the city. Building on the expansive Hong Kong National Security Law Beijing imposed in 2020, the new SNSO adds a host of vaguely defined offenses constituting insurrection, treason, external interference, or espionage – including mere “incitement to disaffection”. The law places a particular focus on containing “external forces” and foreign interference, with broad definitions of what types of contacts or exchanges of information with foreign actors may be deemed illegal. The law establishes tough penalties, while simultaneously restricting procedural rights, such as access to lawyers. 

Just as on the mainland, this “mission creep” of national security may have serious implications for citizens and the private sector alike. The SNSO also adds broadly phrased sections on state secrets and espionage, bringing Hong Kong legislation in line with worrying changes to PRC law enacted over the past year. It claims extraterritorial applicability for many offenses, which for example means that all entities with a registered presence in Hong Kong could be prosecuted for perceived infraction. This raises key concerns for media outlets and rights organizations still based in Hong Kong, but may also hit corporate actors in information gathering or legal proceedings. 

Western companies active in China often use the mantra that "politics is politics, business is business" to explain why ever more repressive laws will not affect their bottom line. But Hong Kong’s mainland-style “securitization of everything” means that this distinction is becoming increasingly meaningless. Hong Kong authorities first targeted outright dissent voices and collective action, but political control is already curtailing civil society and media in Hong Kong – vital elements that keep politics and liberal market systems in check. 

Hong Kong officials are increasingly seeing the world through the security lens

Just like their mainland counterparts, Hong Kong officials are increasingly seeing the world through the security lens. The political uproar when Argentine soccer player Lionel Messi failed to appear during a match in Hong Kong is just one example. Regina Ip, convenor of the Executive Council that advises the Chief Executive attributed this to “black hands” trying to tarnish the city’s reputation – boycotts of and a hasty apology by Messi ensued. 

The United Nations, European Union and various countries have criticized the enactment of the SNSO. The EU said that the bill’s sweeping provisions may impact Hong Kong’s long-term attractiveness as an international business hub and that it will continue to assess the implications of Hong Kong’s national security legislation. There will be plenty to watch in areas like judicial independence, rule of law and government transparency. In addition to obvious human rights concerns, governments and companies should be paying close attention to spill-over effects, as the hallmarks of mainland politics – political agenda setting, restriction of information, arbitrary enforcement – become more prominent features in Hong Kong. 

This article was first published by "The Diplomat" on March 22, 2024.