New national security laws for Hong Kong punish crimes of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces with up to life in prison.
China’s parliament passed the detailed legislation on Tuesday, giving Beijing sweeping powers over its implementation and setting the stage for the most radical changes in decades to the global financial hub’s way of life.
Beijing had kept full details shrouded in secrecy, giving Hong Kong’s 7.5 million people no time to digest the complex legislation before it entered into force at 11pm local time.
The timing was seen as a symbolic humiliation for Britain, coming just an hour before the 23rd anniversary of when Hong Kong’s last colonial governor Chris Patten, a staunch critic of the law, tearfully handed back Hong Kong to Chinese rule.
Amid fears the law will crush the city’s freedoms, prominent activist Joshua Wong’s Demosisto and other pro-democracy groups said they would dissolve.
University of Hong Kong law professor and barrister Simon Young was highly critical of the legislation.
“The punitive elements of the law are stupefying,” he said.
“Let us hope no one tries to test this law, for the consequences to the individual and the legal system will be irreparable.”
The legislation pushes Beijing further along a collision course with the US, Britain and other Western governments, which have said it erodes the high degree of autonomy the city was granted at its July 1, 1997, handover.
Britain and some two dozen Western countries urged China to reconsider the law, saying Beijing must preserve the right to assembly and free press.
The US condemned the legislation as a violation of Beijing’s international commitments and vowed to go on acting “against those who smothered Hong Kong’s freedom and autonomy”.
Washington, already in dispute with China over trade, the South China Sea and the coronavirus, began eliminating Hong Kong’s special status under US law on Monday, halting defence exports and restricting technology access.
China said it would retaliate.
Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam, in a video message to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, urged the international community to “respect our country’s right to safeguard national security”.
She said the law would not undermine the city’s autonomy or its independent judiciary.
In their most severe form, crimes will be punishable with life in prison.
Punishments otherwise largely go up to 10 years. Properties related to crimes could be frozen or confiscated.
The security legislation will supersede existing Hong Kong laws where there is a conflict and mainland Chinese authorities could exercise jurisdiction over some major cases.
Interpretation powers belong to the Chinese parliament’s top decision-making body.
Judges for security cases will be appointed by the city’s chief executive.
According to the law, a new national security agency will be set up for the first time in Hong Kong and will not be under the jurisdiction of the local government.
Authorities can carry out surveillance and wire-tap people suspected of endangering national security, it said.