On 23 June 2021, the first citizen charged under the new Hong Kong national security law pled not guilty. The Beijing-imposed legislation, which was instated on 30 June 2020, is designed to curb protest and target secession, subversion, and collusion with foreign powers. The law puts pressure on anyone in the former British colony forming opposition to the Chinese Communist Party by setting up a security apparatus in the territory that gives Beijing the power to target political crimes. Key provisions of the new law dictate that those found guilty will not be allowed to stand for public office, and that crimes of terrorism and collusion are punishable with a sentence of life in prison. Since the law was passed, over 100 people have been arrested and over 50 charged in order to achieve China’s goal of preventing protest and returning stability to the administrative region. Beijing will have power over how the law is interpreted.
Before the law was enacted, very few people had seen its full text and there was a lack of transparency with the public. Authorities in Hong Kong were prevented from changing or altering the law. The first public instance of the law being put to work was the arrest of a man after he unfurled a Hong Kong flag during a demonstration. However, this first arrest appeared to be an oversight – while the flag appeared to have “Hong Kong Independence” written on it, “No to” in smaller text was adjacent, and so in its first application the law failed in its goal of targeting pro-independence protesters.
The new law allows Beijing to intervene in what it considers national security cases in Hong Kong, especially during crises or if a case is deemed multi-faceted or “complex”. The law also opens the door to defendants in important cases standing trial before courts in mainland China, where convictions are inevitable and penalties harsh. The law also allows trials involving state secrets to be closed off from news media and the public, with Beijing determining what is considered a state secret. Multiple parts of the security legislation take aim at the perceived role of foreigners in political activism in Hong Kong, with the new rules also applying to non-residents of the territory. Article 38 of the national security law states that foreigners who support the independence movement or call for imposing sanctions on the Chinese government will be prosecuted upon entering Hong Kong or mainland China.
There are already concerns that political candidates opposing the national security law will be disqualified from running in elections and that the law will eventually erode Hong Kong’s judicial independence, leaving its legal system looking increasingly similar to mainland China’s. Certain freedoms have been protected by Hong Kong’s political system, including freedoms of assembly and speech, an independent judiciary, and some democratic rights – freedoms that mainland Chinese citizens do not possess. Before the passing of the law Professor Johannes Chan, a legal scholar at the University of Hong Kong, stated, “It is clear that the law will have a severe impact on freedom of expression, if not personal security, on the people of Hong Kong. Effectively, they are imposing the People’s Republic of China’s criminal system onto the Hong Kong common law system, leaving them with complete discretion to decide who should fall into which system.”