by Jerome Taylor
China’s new national security law for Hong Kong is more draconian than initially feared, legal analysts said Wednesday, as they dissected a document granting Beijing unprecedented jurisdiction in the business hub — and even beyond its borders.
The law was imposed Tuesday, six weeks after it was first announced, in a bid by China to end huge and often violent pro-democracy protests in the semi-autonomous city.
It bypassed Hong Kong’s legislature and the wording was kept secret until it came into effect, leaving residents, legal scholars, diplomats and businesses scrambling to decipher what now constitutes a crime.
Beijing says the law will not end political freedoms in a city supposedly guaranteed legal autonomy until 2047.
But it was clear certain political views had become illegal overnight, and alarm quickly spread over a section claiming universal jurisdiction.
“If you’ve ever said anything that might offend [China] or Hong Kong authorities, stay out of Hong Kong,” Donald Clarke, an expert on Chinese law at George Washington University, wrote in an analysis.
A major cause of concern, Clarke said, was Article 38, which states national security offences committed overseas, even by foreigners, can be prosecuted.
“I know of no reason not to think it means what it appears to say: it is asserting extraterritorial jurisdiction over every person on the planet,” Clarke wrote.
James To, an opposition lawmaker, told reporters on Wednesday the law could affect “people around the world, people who come for business, for transit, for travel, anyone”.
Independence calls ‘illegal’
The law outlines four offences: subversion, secession, terrorism and colluding with foreign forces to undermine national security.
Analysts said the descriptions of the four crimes were loosely worded, potentially outlawing a host of views and actions.
“The law is very broadly drafted, open to interpretation and is a creature of the mainland legal system,” Antony Dapiran, a Hong Kong lawyer who has written books on the city’s protest movement, told AFP.
One example of a terror act, for example, is attacking public transport, something protesters often did last year. But it also includes providing support or assistance for such acts.
“This would mean many ‘moderate’ or peaceful supporters of the protest movement would be caught under the law if the extreme protesters they assisted were to be arrested as terrorists,” Dapiran added.
The wording of the secession crime means even peaceful calls for Hong Kong to have greater autonomy or independence is now outlawed.
On Wednesday afternoon police made their first two arrests under the law — a man and woman found with Hong Kong independence banners.
In a statement, police said calls for independence for Hong Kong, Tibet, Xinjiang or Taiwan were now all deemed illegal.
Media freedoms at risk?
Another area that has generated concern is media and academic freedom.
Thanks to its free-speech rules, Hong Kong has for decades served as a regional and international press hub — a tradition that continued after the handover to China.
The new law orders that China’s new national security agency in the city “take necessary measures to strengthen the management” of international news agencies and NGOs, without further elaboration.
“The free press could just be announced as dead in Hong Kong,” warned Claudia Mo, a former journalist and now an opposition lawmaker.
She said critical voices could fear speaking to the media, and journalists could start self-censoring.
On the Chinese mainland, the press is state-controlled and foreign reporters are routinely harassed and even expelled for their coverage.
Even Hong Kong’s status as a bastion of press freedom has slipped in recent years.
In 2018, a foreign journalist was effectively expelled for hosting a talk with the leader of a then legal but fringe independence party.
Earlier this year China kicked out a group of US journalists in a tit-for-tat spat with Washington.
It also declared the reporters would not be allowed into Hong Kong, despite the city supposedly managing its own immigration.