Lawyers in Hong Kong say the new national security law decreed by Beijing may be open to abuse and difficult to apply while Chinese officials have described it as “tailor-made” for the territory.
The ambiguity and large scope of the legislation may deter many people from behaviour that they are not sure is illegal.
Although Chinese and Hong Kong officials have said an “extremely small” number of people would face arrest, the four major crimes sweep up a broad range of actions.
Many appear to cover even non-violent tactics employed by protesters and their supporters in a wave of unrest that gripped the city last year, such as slowing train traffic, waving pro-independence banners, vandalising or besieging government buildings, or aiding people who take more radical action.
Last Wednesday, Hong Kong police held flags warning protesters that chanting slogans like the common refrain, “Hong Kong independence, the only way out”, could now face criminal charges.
The legislation boldly claims global jurisdiction over Hong Kong residents and even non-residents. While Chinese laws have made such sweeping assertions before, this one may give pause to the 30 places that have extradition agreements with Hong Kong, including the United States, Japan and much of Europe.
The language could theoretically cover everyone from exiled dissidents and foreign human rights activists to bureaucrats drafting sanctions proposals.
Provisions against foreign collusion introduce a range of new offences similar to those that the Chinese authorities have employed regularly against dissidents, journalists and business people on the mainland.
At immediate risk are activists who have lobbied the US and other governments for sanctions.
The law also calls for Chinese agencies in Hong Kong to “strengthen the management of and services” over foreign media and non-governmental organisations in the city, without elaborating. The implication is that Hong Kong may adopt oversight similar to China, where charities must register with police and journalists face strict controls.
The mainland uses a civil code based on continental European systems, while Hong Kong uses common law, a British system more reliant on judicial interpretation.
The security law overrides Hong Kong’s own “mini-Constitution” and other laws, and it allows for the denial of bail before trial because defendants may “continue to commit acts endangering national security”, despite not yet being proved guilty.
The law for the first time allows the mainland authorities to prosecute Hong Kong residents in national security cases, limited by only a few broad restrictions.
Questions have been raised about whether such defendants could face the death penalty, since China is believed to conduct the most executions in the world each year. Hong Kong abolished the death penalty in 1993 and has not carried out an execution in more than half a century. (Source: The Straits Times)