Beijing imposes national security law on Hong Kong, seeking to crush city’s democracy movement

Domestic News

At around midnight Hong Kong time last night, China’s central government released the text of the new national security law. The law has already intimidated several Hong Kong civil society actors to publicly withdraw from their roles as opposition forces.

The Standing Committee of the 13th National People's Congress applauds after it votes unanimously to impose national security laws on Hong Kong. Screenshot of CCTV video via Shen Shiwei.

At around midnight Hong Kong time last night, China’s central government released the text of the new national security law. The law has already intimidated several Hong Kong civil society actors to publicly withdraw from their roles as opposition forces.


Twenty-three years ago, as Britain handed sovereignty over Hong Kong to China, a de facto constitution for the largely self-governing city went into effect: The Basic Law. Article 23 of that constitution states:

The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region shall enact laws on its own to prohibit any act of treason, secession, sedition, subversion against the Central People’s Government, or theft of state secrets, to prohibit foreign political organizations or bodies from conducting political activities in the Region, and to prohibit political organizations or bodies of the Region from establishing ties with foreign political organizations or bodies.

The Hong Kong government tried, in 2003, to enact national security legislation along these lines, but massive protests erupted. Further mass protests in 2014 and 2019 called for some parts of the Basic Law to be fulfilled — like Article 45, which says, “The ultimate aim is the selection of the Chief Executive by universal suffrage” — while objecting to moves by the government to bring Hong Kong closer, politically, to mainland China.

What happened today?

Beijing today formally ignored the “on its own” part of Hong Kong’s Basic Law Article 23. In less than six weeks, Beijing has gone from announcing its intention to take matters of national security in Hong Kong into its own hands to passing the law unanimously — with Hongkongers, including Chief Executive Carrie Lam (林鄭月娥 Lín Zhèng Yuè’é), in the dark about most details.

The continued uncertainty about how the law will be implemented seems designed to disrupt the city’s pro-democracy movement and dissuade anti-government protesters from showing up on the streets again. As Chris Buckley and Keith Bradsher write at the New York Times:

Conceived in secrecy and passed with intimidating speed, the law has ignited uncertainty about the future of Hong Kong before any arrests under its sweeping powers to quash political activity and speech that challenge Beijing. Chinese officials and policy advisers have described the security law as part of a “second return” for Hong Kong, one, they suggest, that will scrub away a dangerous residue of Western influence and liberal values.

The law released to the public near midnight lays out new crimes for subverting the government, seeking to “split” Hong Kong from China, or “colluding” with foreign governments or “external forces” to spy or gravely harm China — and authorizes life imprisonment for the most serious cases.

“Four leading members of Demosisto, a youth opposition organization at the forefront of protests last year, said on Tuesday that they had quit the group, citing risks from the law,” the NYT notes. Additionally, two groups from Hong Kong’s small but significant pro-independence movement “said they would end activities in the territory.”

Reacting to the resignation of Joshua Wong (黃之鋒 Huáng Zhīfēng), one of the founders of Demosisto, NYT columnist Li Yuan commented:

HK users are deleting their Twitter accounts. HK writers are asking pro-democracy publications to delete their past articles. Now Joshua Wong, the face of HK protestors, is saying he will lie low for now. The chilling effect of the national security law has kicked in.

Will China prosecute for overseas crimes?

The text and meaning of the law is still vague. The Wall Street Journal raises several worrying points about how infractions of the law could be prosecuted:

The law also states that it would apply to any person who commits offenses defined by its provisions, even if they are outside Hong Kong and aren’t permanent residents of the territory. It wasn’t clear how this provision would be implemented…

According to the law, much of the responsibility for enforcing national security falls to a special council formed by Hong Kong officials and led by the city’s chief executive. Their work will be confidential, with decisions not subject to judicial reviews.

A special unit within the local police force will handle national-security cases, and it can hire personnel from outside of Hong Kong. Beyond the police’s usual powers in criminal investigations, the law allows the special police unit to put suspects under secret surveillance with authorization from the city’s chief executive.

Reaction in Hong Kong and abroad

“25 Hong Kong district councillors and over 30 human right groups from 13 countries, including Canada, USA, Japan and Australia…called on countries to impose Magnitsky-style sanctions against Chinese and Hong Kong officials complicit in the passing of the new legislation, and urged the implementation of ‘lifeboat’ schemes for Hongkongers who may now face political persecution,” the Hong Kong Free Press reports.

Meanwhile, Carrie Lam defended the law via video link to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva. Beijing’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office said, per AFP, “For the small minority who endanger national security, this law will be a sword hanging over their heads.”

“China’s national security law wins business support,” writes the New York Times. See also Ryan Tang last week in SupChina: The youth are angry, but it’s business as usual for Hong Kong’s corporate elite as they embrace national security law.

“EU, Britain, Taiwan dismayed by China’s new security law for Hong Kong,” summarizes Reuters. Japan, meanwhile, called the law “regrettable.” See also:

“The United States will stop exporting defence equipment to Hong Kong because of Beijing’s pending implementation of a national security law,” the SCMP reports. China has vowed to retaliate. The two countries had already said they would restrict visas on unspecified Chinese officials that they saw as responsible for “eviscerating Hong Kong’s freedoms,” and “Americans who behave badly in Hong Kong affairs,” respectively.