Hong Kong National Security Laws: Creating Fear in Its Citizens

I. History of Hong Kong and Its National Security Law

Hong Kong, located in the southern region of China, was originally under British rule.[1] This was a direct result of the Opium War.[2] The Opium War began because the British were smuggling opium into China, against China’s wishes, to pay for other product that were being transported into the country.[3] The War ended in 1842 after the signing of the Treaty of Nanking, which gave Britain Hong Kong and established free trade with China.[4] Britain then signed the Second Convention of Peking, granting it rule over Hong Kong for 99 years.[5] However, before the 99 years were complete, China negotiated with Britain to release the colony in exchange for a “’one country, two systems’” government approach.[6] When Hong Kong was first reunited under Chinese rule, Hong Kong was distinct from the mainland. Hong Kong enjoyed rights that mainland China did not have: freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and the right to vote during democratic elections.[7] However, China quickly began to shift Hong Kong’s government, angering its citizens.[8]

China promised that Hong Kong citizens would be able to elect their leaders to power.[9] Instead, China gave Hong Kong a list of pre-selected options, causing tension and unrest within the mainland.[10] This betrayal sparked the 2014 Umbrella Movement- hundreds of thousands of people mass protested on the streets in opposition of China, and used umbrellas to shield themselves from police.[11] In 2019, following the Umbrella Movement, China enacted new security laws, banning any  opposition to the Chinese government.[12] China narrowed elections further, only allowing men whom China deemed as loyal to run for Hong Kong’s government.[13] John Lee is now the current leader of Hong Kong, as he was the only one deemed loyal.[14] He has been Hong Kong’s leader since 2022.[15]

In 2020, China pushed more national security laws into Hong Kong, as a response to the growing protests.[16] Through these laws, pro-democracy businesses, artwork, and sources of news have been banned in Hong Kong since they go directly against China’s government structure, as China is a communist country.[17] Because free speech and protesting was banned, citizens began gathering and holding blank papers to symbolize the lack of words left for them to use.[18] The government pulled movies, books, access to websites, teachers, and legislators who support independence.[19] Beijing created a hub in Hong Kong to “guide” national security and select legislation in favor of China’s government that would override Hong Kong’s laws.[20] Although China, both historically and recently, promised to protect Hong Kong citizens’ freedom, similar laws in China proved that this was not the true intent behind these laws.[21]

As a result, the United States revoked special status, which allowed the military to send sensitive information overseas.[22] Taiwan began assisting Hong Kong residents to flee the country.[23] The UK provided refugee status to Hong Kong citizens.[24] The Hong Kong government promised to pursue fugitive offenders of the new law for “as long as [they] live[d].”[25] Police officers who had a strong record of abusing citizens were given top honors by the government as doing a “’service to their community.’”[26]

The government strategically used these laws to “wipe out” any freely expressed opinions against China’s government.[27] Further, Hong Kong was under a trial of new security laws, with the trial period ending on February 28, 2024.[28] The purpose of these laws is to fill the “gaps” left from the 2020 enactment, with the same goal of unifying the laws and government between China and Hong Kong.[29] The “trial period” allows for the government to monitor the public’s response to the new laws, react, and adapt accordingly before finalizing the laws.[30]

II. Concerns Citizens Have About the New Laws

The new security laws have Hong Kong’s citizens worried about their ability to freely voice their opinions and concerns without fear of punishment. A researcher at the University of Tokyo explains that “the purpose is to have total control of [their] activities, including freedom of expression.”[31] With many citizens sharing similar feelings, John Lee believes these new laws protect and respect freedom of speech.[32] He argues the protests proved that the nation needed new security to properly enjoy their rights.[33] He further explained that even though Hong Kong may currently appear to be safe, there is still a security threat. He anticipates non-citizens who are advocating for an independent government may still be active and preparing to rebel.[34] Lee was a police officer for over 20 years before becoming Hong Kong’s leader, so his anticipations may be based on past trends seen on the force.[35] Lee continues to express that he fully supports the new laws, as they will create stability and will ultimately be in the best interest of Hong Kong’s citizens.[36] Accordingly, the government argues that these laws were necessary since Hong Kong became a part of China again.[37] Under Hong Kong’s Basic Law, or “mini-constitution,” Article 23 states it may “enact laws on its own to prohibit acts and activities that endanger national security.’”[38] Because citizens continued to respond to changes with mass protesting, Article 23 was tabled until 2020 and again until this year.[39]

Citizens are disappointed in Hong Kong’s shift in power: they appreciated the freedom to speak on politically sensitive topics without fear of being censored.[40] But now under Chinese rule, Hong Kong citizens live in fear of speaking on their beliefs and the desire to return to their government under Britain.[41] International organizations and businesses, from banks to schools, are worried as well.[42] Those researching within Hong Kong’s borders are nervous that the new laws will control their internet access and data operations.[43] Once a free land, Hong Kong citizens are now living a life of fear.

III. Human Rights and International Law Violations

Citizens have been concerned about their freedom for years. Similar to the current change in laws, China attempted to modify Hong Kong’s security laws in 2003 but was unsuccessful.[44] The attempt sparked a mass protest with over 500,000 people all in opposition of the new laws.[45] Because of this, citizens are well-aware that their laws are in direct violation of Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”[46] Since the 2020 security laws have taken effect, hundreds of supporters for pro-democracy have been placed in jail for speaking against the Chinese government.[47] The legislation will be enacted to fill in the gaps of the 2020 laws, focusing on treason, espionage, destructive activities endangering their security, external interference, insurrection, and theft of state secrets.[48] With these focuses, almost all media coverage of opposition will disappear.[49] Anyone who suggests dissatisfaction with the government will not have access to due process or a fair trial, as China has extended “police detention without charge and restrict[ed] access to lawyers.”[50] Currently, Jimmy Lai, a well-known activist in Hong Kong, is on trial for violating the national security laws, as he started his own magazine speaking out against the Chinese government.[51] He struggled to find counsel willing to represent him, as some attorneys have been barred from taking his case as it is a national security risk.[52]

Additionally, these new laws are overly broad, creating blanket rules that are unclear.[53] Blanket laws allow the government to prosecute for almost anything they deem to be a danger to national security..[54] This makes it difficult for people, specifically journalists, to know when their opinions are considered a “threat” to the nation’s security.[55] With the inability to freely voice their opinions and the risk of life imprisonment, journalists are becoming scarce.[56] People cannot distinguish their “peaceful exercises of human rights, including the rights to freedom of association, assembly, expression and the press,” causing anxiety among citizens to gather and protest.[57] Further, there have been no protests during the trial period, since the consequences for directly opposing the laws is imprisonment.[58] This is seen directly after the 2020 provisions, where arrestees were presumed guilty instead of innocent, and many were not given bail unless they could show they would cease acts that could endanger the nation and its security.[59]

IV. Conclusion

Countries concerned with the power dynamics of China and Hong Kong should publicly voice their disapproval, in hopes of influencing China to reverse these laws.[60] Human Rights Watch, an organization that researches and advocates for human rights, urges countries to “impose targeted sanctions, including asset freezes and travel bans, on the responsible Hong Kong and Chinese officials.”[61] Although the trial period for the new laws are now complete, there have not been any public updates regarding next steps.

[1] Tessa Wong, China and Hong Kong: Five Moments in Fraught Relationship Since Handover (June 26, 2022), https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-61809659.

[2] The National Archives, Hong Kong and the Opium Wars How Did Hong Kong Become Part of the British Empire, https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/education/resources/hong-kong-and-the-opium-wars/#:~:text=Britain%20won%20the%20war%20in,damages%20for%20the%20destroyed%20opium (last visited Mar. 3, 2024).

[3] Id. at ¶2.

[4] Id.

[5] History.com Editors, Britain Agrees to Return Hong Kong to China, https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/britain-agrees-to-return-hong-kong-to-china (last updated Dec. 18, 2023).

[6] Id.

[7] Supra note 1 at ¶8.

[8] Id.

[9] Id. at ¶32.

[10] Id. at ¶34.

[11] Id.

[12] Id.

[13] Id. at ¶50.

[14] Id.

[15] The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica, John Lee Chief Execuitve of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, https://www.britannica.com/biography/John-Lee-government-official (last visited April 1, 2024).

[16] Vivian Wang and Tiffany May, Hong Kong Pushes New Security Law to Root Out ‘Seeds of Unrest’ (Jan. 30, 2024) https://www.nytimes.com/2024/01/30/world/asia/hong-kong-security-law-unrest.html.

[17] Human Rights Watch, Dismantling a Free Society (June 25, 2021), https://www.hrw.org/feature/2021/06/25/dismantling-free-society/hong-kong-one-year-after-national-security-law.

[18] Id.

[19] Id.

[20] Lily Kou, China Passes Controversial Hong Kong National Security Law (June 29, 2020, 11:00pm) https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jun/30/china-passes-controversial-hong-kong-national-security-law.

[21] Id.

[22] Id.

[23] Id.

[24] Supra note 15.

[25] Id.

[26] Id.

[27] Id.

[28] VOA News, Hong Kong to Craft Its Own National Security Law (Jan. 30, 2024, 3:47 AM) https://www.voanews.com/a/hong-kong-to-craft-its-own-national-security-law/7462916.html.

[29] Chris Lau, Hong Kong Unveils its Second National Security Law Aligning City More Closely With Mainland China (Mar. 8, 2024, 2:14am) https://www.cnn.com/2024/03/08/world/hong-kong-new-national-security-laws-china-intl-hnk/index.html.

[30] Id.

[31] Supra note 13.

[32] Helen Davidson, Hong Kong’s Article 23: What is the New National Security Law and What Will It Mean for Human Rights (Jan. 30, 2024, 12:50 AM) https://www.theguardian.com/world/2024/jan/30/hong-kong-article-23-new-national-security-laws-explained-what-do-they-mean.

[33] Id.

[34] Supra note 15 at ¶6.

[35] The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica, John Lee Chief Execuitve of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, https://www.britannica.com/biography/John-Lee-government-official (last visited Mar. 17, 2024).

[36] Jessica Pang and Greg Torode, Hong Kong Leader Starts Push for New Security Laws Says City ‘Can’t Afford to Wait’ (Jan. 30, 2024, 9:04 AM), https://www.reuters.com/world/china/hong-kong-leaders-start-legislative-push-tighten-national-security-laws-2024-01-30/.

[37] Id.

[38] Id.

[39] Nectar Gan, Hong Kong Already Has a National Security Law Now Its Leader is Pushing for Another One (Jan. 30, 2024, 12:33 PM), https://edition.cnn.com/2024/01/30/asia/hong-kong-security-law-article-23-consultation-intl-hnk/index.html.

[40] Erin Hale, For Foreign Firms in Hong Kong National Security Plans Bring Fresh Chill (Feb. 14, 2024), https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2024/2/14/for-foreign-firms-in-hong-kong-national-security-plans-bring-fresh-chill.

[41] Id.

[42] Id.

[43] Supra note 20.

[44] Supra note 15.

[45] Id.

[46] U.D.H.R. art. 19.

[47] Supra note 17.

[48] Id.

[49] Supra note 20.

[50] Human Rights Watch, Hong Kong: Government Should Oppose Security Bill 86 Groups Urge Rebukes Sanctions Against Beijing’s Latest Assault on Rights (Feb. 19, 2024, 7:15 PM), https://www.hrw.org/news/2024/02/19/hong-kong-governments-should-oppose-security-bill.

[51] Id.

[52] Id.

[53] Kanis Leung, Hong Kong’s Plan for a New National Security Law Deepens Fear Over Eroding Civil Liberties (Feb. 28, 2024, 4:30 AM), https://abcnews.go.com/International/wireStory/hong-kongs-plan-new-national-security-law-deepens-107619459.

[54] Id.

[55] Id.

[56] Supra note 15.

[57] Shweta Sharma, UK ‘Strongly’ Calls on China to Reconsider Hong Kong’s New National Security Law (Feb. 29, 2024), https://www.independent.co.uk/asia/china/hong-kong-national-security-law-china-uk-b2504530.html?callback=in&code=NMFJYWE0ZDATOTM1ZS0ZMGU4LWE2NTQTYWE2NWIWNDQ1NTNM&state=4abbf3478d334e1b8100a05de1c88e50.

[58] Id.

[59] Amnesty International, Hong Kong: National Security Law Has Created a Human Rights Emergency (June 30, 2021), https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2021/06/hong-kong-national-security-law-has-created-a-human-rights-emergency-2/.

[60] Supra note 32 at ¶2.

[61] Id.