Hong Kong pushes new security bill at full speed, citing 'imminent' risks

Credit: REUTERS/LAM YIK

By James Pomfret and Jessie Pang

HONG KONG, March 7 (Reuters) - The Hong Kong government will send the "Article 23" national security bill to the legislature on Friday, possibly cracking down further on dissent in the former British colony, with city leader John Lee calling for it to be passed "at full speed".

The move to enact new laws encompassing espionage, state secrets and sedition comes little over a week after a month-long public consultation period for the bill ended.

It will still require several rounds of debate in the Legislative Council, and the convening of a special meeting for first and second readings, with the entire process possibly taking weeks.

"The geopolitics has become increasingly complex, and national security risks remain imminent," a government statement said.

"The means taken to endanger national security can come in many different forms and the threat can emerge all of a sudden," it said, saying the security loopholes must be plugged.

The government said the security bureau and justice department had been working "at full steam" to complete the bill drafting.

"Completing the legislative work even one day earlier means we can more effectively safeguard national security one day earlier," Lee said, calling for it to be passed "at full speed".

Critics including the U.S. government says the law will further narrow freedoms in the global financial hub, with proposals that are too broad and vague.

Article 23 could be used to "eliminate dissent through the fear of arrest and detention", the U.S. State Department said in a statement in late February.

The "gazetting" of the bill on Friday will give the first detailed view of the full scope of the legislation, including details on proposed lengths of sentencing.

It will also reveal the extent to which authorities address fundamental rights concerns as called for by some diplomats, legal scholars and rights advocacy groups including media associations.

The law targets crimes including treason, theft of state secrets, espionage, sabotage, sedition and external interference. It will also have "extraterritorial" effect, giving rise to fears it could be used to intimidate and restrict the free speech of residents outside Hong Kong.

With the city's legislature dominated by pro-Beijing lawmakers, the bill is expected to be approved.

The Hong Kong government has pointed out that many Western nations have similar legislation, and that these laws are required to plug "loopholes" in the national security regime, which was bolstered in 2020 by another national security law imposed directly by China.

While Chinese and Hong Kong government officials said the 2020 law was vital to restoring stability after sometimes violent pro-democracy protests a year earlier, the new package has long been required under Hong Kong's mini-constitution, agreed with Britain, known as the Basic Law.

That document guides the city's relationship with Beijing since its 1997 return to Chinese rule. Article 23 stipulates that the city "shall enact laws on its own to prohibit acts and activities that endanger national security".

Article 23 comes as Hong Kong tries to improve its image, and economy, amid international criticism of the China-led crackdown on freedoms which has sent many pro-democracy politicians and activists into jail or exile.

(Reporting by James Pomfret and Jessie Pang; editing by Greg Torode, Alex Richardson and Nick Macfie)

((james.pomfret@thomsonreuters.com; +852-28436390; Reuters Messaging: james.pomfret.thomsonreuters.com@reuters.net))

The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.

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