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What you need to know about China's new national security law for Hong Kong

China's national security law for Hong Kong has sparked fears that Beijing continues to encroach on Hong Kong's autonomy while curtailing a number of its freedoms. CBC explains what the new law is about and some of the concerns surrounding its passage.

Law covers secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces

China's national security law for Hong Kong has sparked fears that Beijing continues to encroach on the region's autonomy while curtailing a number of its freedoms. (Kin Cheung/Associated Press)

China's new national security law for Hong Kong went into effect Wednesday, which ironically coincides with the holiday commemorating the region's transfer from the United Kingdom to China. The law has sparked condemnation from some countries, including Canada, and prompted fears that Beijing continues to encroach on Hong Kong's autonomy while curtailing a number of its freedoms. CBC News explains some of the concerns.

What is the new national security law?

The law, passed in China's Standing Committee of the National People's Congress (NPCSC), includes 66 articles and covers four areas of criminal activity: secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign or external forces. Those convicted of such crimes face maximum sentences of life imprisonment.

The law grants mainland China more powers to insert itself in the affairs of Hong Kong. Among the measures, the Chinese government will establish a national security agency in Hong Kong which will not be under the jurisdiction of the local government.

As well, mainland authorities will exercise jurisdiction in "complex" cases such as those involving a foreign country or issues that are deemed to pose a major and imminent threat to national security.

According to other measures, damaging certain transportation vehicles and equipment is considered an act of terrorism, and anyone convicted of violating security legislation will not be allowed to stand in any Hong Kong elections.

Does China have the right to pass this law?

The "one country, two systems" constitutional arrangement — agreed to when Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1997 — granted the region political autonomy while enshrining rights and freedoms in its Basic Law mini-constitution that include freedom of speech, assembly and an independent judiciary. As well, Article 18 of the Basic Law states that China's national laws "shall not be applied" in Hong Kong.

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Delegates attend the plenary meeting of China's NPCSC near a display which reads 'Vote on the People's Republic of China, Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, Draft National Security Law.' (Liu Weibing/Xinhua via Associated Press)

There is an exception, however. China's NPCSC can add and delete laws listed in Annex III of the Basic Law constitution. This can be done after consulting with the Hong Kong government but is supposed to be confined to laws relating to defence and foreign affairs "as well as other matters outside the limits of the autonomy of the Region as specified by this Law."

For laws added to Annex III to become official, they must either be passed by the Hong Kong government, or through promulgation, which is done by Hong Kong's chief executive issuing a legal notice in the Government Gazette.

The new law was promulgated, marking the first time a Chinese law carrying criminal penalties was introduced without a legislative process, according to Human Rights Watch.

What is China's justification for the new law?

Chinese officials have defended the law as an important measure to curtail anti-government protests in Hong Kong like those that sprung up in June 2019.

"With hostile forces in and outside of Hong Kong colluding with each other in recent years, the absence of relevant legal system and enforcement mechanisms … has created major risks for China's national security," China's official state-run news agency Xinhua said in a commentary.

The law, it said, is meant to focus on preventing and punishing activities "that severely undermine national security." And for the overwhelming majority of Hong Kong residents, "they need not worry. In fact, people in Hong Kong will be able to live in a safer environment under the protection of the national security laws."

What are the concerns?

Critics fear the law is a significant power grab on behalf of Beijing that will severely curtail the political freedoms of Hong Kong citizens. They fear its four areas of criminal activity are so ill-defined that the law could be used as an excuse to round up anyone critical of the Chinese government.

"The law is very vague as to what these things are and how they are going to be implemented," said Lynette Ong, an associate professor of political science at the University of Toronto's Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy.

Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch, said back in May that people in Hong Kong will now have to consider arrests and harsh sentences "for protesting, speaking out, running for office, and other freedoms they have long enjoyed and struggled peacefully to defend."

Protesters gather at a Hong Kong shopping mall during a pro-democracy protest against Beijing's national security law. (Vincent Yu/Associated Press)

But the way the legislation was established by Beijing is also a major worry, said Ong.

"It is a law that is really with the explicit intention of bypassing the Hong Kong legislature," she said. "It is really a blatant disregard of the one country, two systems "

Ong also fears the deterrent effect that this law will have on peoples' behaviour. Already, the prominent Hong Kong pro-democracy activists Joshua Wong, Agnes Chow and Nathan Law issued statements on Facebook indicating that they would withdraw from pro-democracy organization Demosisto.

Wong said "worrying about life and safety" has become a real issue and that nobody will be able to predict the repercussions of the law.

"Even the bravest people in Hong Kong are worried that the law is going to get them," Ong said. "People will be more worried than ever before because the government now has more excuses, more legitimate excuses to come and get you."


Mark Gollom

Senior Reporter

Mark Gollom is a Toronto-based reporter with CBC News. He covers Canadian and U.S. politics and current affairs.

With files from Reuters