Hong Kong promises its latest national security law is not a ban on social media

Trust us – we're the government

On Tuesday, Hong Kong's legislature unanimously passed the city's latest controversial national security legislation, otherwise known as Article 23.

Critics are calling the law rushed and fast-tracked, as it was passed within eleven days of introduction. However, it's been two decades in the making. A similar bill was met with protests in 2003, and a national security bill, on which Article 23 builds, was finally passed in 2020.

This time, the article [PDF] prohibits "any act of treason, secession, sedition, subversion" against the Chinese government, along with theft of state secrets and external interference.

Like many documents out of Beijing, it's vague in defining offenses. It also levies stiff penalties of up to 20 years in prison for theft of state secrets, or a lifetime for treason and insurrection.

"Today marks a historic moment for Hong Kong. It is a historic moment that Hong Kong has been waiting for 26 years, eight months and 19 days," proclaimed Hong Kong chief executive John Lee.

He alleged the law will safeguard national sovereignty and security while honoring Hong Kong and China's "one country, two systems" relationship.

Feedback was sought on the law, which comes into effect on March 23. Hong Kong's government duly presented views, including discussion of bans on social media.

It's a reasonable question – given that Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp and X are currently accessible in Hong Kong, but not in mainland China.

Hong Kong's justice minister Paul Lam reportedly insisted that restricting access to the socials was not the intent. That doesn't mean that how a person uses social media won't create legal problems for them.

"What we are targeting are the use, abuse, or misuse of these tools to spread speech that can endanger national security … We are not targeting social media per se," clarified Lam.

The article's accompanying consultation paper does warn that "given the popular use of the internet and social messaging applications," messages that promote the endangerment of national security "can be covertly disseminated in a fast and extensive manner."

The law also introduces [PDF] the offence of "doing acts endangering national security in relation to computers or electronic systems."

Article 23 has been criticized by various sources.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) alleged it "eliminates the last vestiges of fundamental freedoms in the city," and "punishes peaceful speech and civil society activism."

Implications are global, as its provisions apply Hong Kong-based businesses anywhere in the world, warned the org.

HRW director Elaine Pearson pointed out that even possessing a book in Hong Kong critical of the Chinese Communist Party can result in years in prison.

She's not being hyperbolic. The Associate Press reported security minister Chris Tang advising residents charged with having a copy of a publication considered seditious because they forgot they had it in their possession can lodge a reasonable defense to potentially prevent spending up to three years in jail.

Amnesty International also spoke out against the law. China director Sarah Brooks alleged it sends a message about Hong Kong authorities' desire to accommodate Beijing outweighing any human rights commitments.

Among the org's many concerns is allowing for detention without charge for 16 days and denial of access to a lawyer.

Governments – including Australia, the US, the European Union, and the United Nations – have also expressed their concern.

The UK, Hong Kong's former colonial ruler, expressed concerns on matters including "the absence of any reference to independent oversight, or the mechanisms that would support it."

The US stated it was worried about the law's vague definitions, as well as how Hong Kong would "apply Article 23 extraterritorially in their ongoing campaign of transnational repression to intimidate and restrict the free speech of US citizens and residents."

But there's one group untroubled by the law: the Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong.

Despite Article 23 requiring citizens to report those who are believed to be endangering national security, the religious organization assured its parishioners that the legislation "will not alter the confidential nature of Confession."

As for what the law means for businesses that see Hong Kong as a hub, and the territory’s ambition to enhance that status with initiatives such as support for the digital assets industry, that remains to be seen.

The city's population declined after the introduction of the 2020 security law – a loss that was further compounded by the implementation of strict COVID measures. Some recovery has since materialized, and by June 2023 the population grew to where it had been at the end of 2019.

The Hong Kong government claimed that out of 13,000 submissions of opinion, 98.6 percent have shown support – which it said indicates that the legislation is popular. Those opposed to the law, however, knew that making their feelings public was dangerous before the law passed – and is even riskier now that it has come into force. ®

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