Hong Kong’s freedoms were torn to shreds yesterday as China imposed a sweeping national security law that threatens activists with life in prison.
esidents of the city were only informed of the full extent of the law as it came into force at 11pm, with pro-democracy protesters saying it marked the “death” of their struggle.
Anyone found guilty of a wide range of hazily defined crimes – including terrorism, secession, subversion and collusion with foreign forces – faces spending the rest of their life behind bars.
The timing of the law’s imposition was seen as a symbolic strike at Britain, coming just an hour before the 23rd anniversary of the former colony’s handover in 1997.
Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the US House of Representatives, demanded sanctions the day after Washington began to eliminate Hong Kong’s special status in US law, halting defence exports and restricting technology cooperation.
Dismay broke out in activist ranks with pro-democracy groups saying they would dissolve. “It marks the end of Hong Kong that the world knew before,” said protest leader Joshua Wong on Twitter, announcing the end of his Demosisto organisation.
Acts that qualify as “terrorism” under the new law include causing damage to public transport, an apparent reference to attacks on the metro system at the height of last year’s protests.
The law specifically deems the use of Molotov cocktails – a feature of the sometimes violent demonstrations – terrorism, but extends the term to include anything that “seriously endangers public health and safety”.
Sentences of up to 10 years in prison are also established for the promotion of terrorism. Even providing a bus service to protesters could fall under that category, analysts said.
The law, which will supersede existing Hong Kong legislation where there is conflict, paves the way for some trials to be held behind closed doors and some charges could even apply to non-Hong Kong citizens living outside the city.
Judges for security cases will be appointed by the city’s chief executive, ending the system that sees senior judges rotate through Hong Kong’s independent judicial system.
A new national security agency in the city will not fall under the jurisdiction of the local government. Authorities can carry out surveillance of and wiretap people suspected of endangering national security, the law stipulates.
A first test of the new legislation was expected today as pro-democracy protesters had pledged to take to the streets on the anniversary of the territory’s handover to demand their freedoms. “This is going to be one last big push,” one young man said.
“It’s a dark day for anyone who is involved in the democracy movement,” said a prominent Hong Kong barrister who asked to remain anonymous. “People are afraid of a harsh crackdown with activists being arrested and made subject to the mercies of this draconian law.” The expectation, he said, was that arrests would be immediate.
Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, 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 independent judiciary. Authorities in Beijing and Hong Kong have repeatedly said the legislation is aimed at a few “troublemakers”. As the law was passed in Beijing, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army garrison in Hong Kong held a drill which included exercises to stop suspicious vessels and arrest fugitives.
Jimmy Lai, one of the city’s most outspoken pro-democracy tycoons, declared “the death of Hong Kong”.
Mr Lai (72), owner of Next Digital, an anti-Beijing media group, has been warned he could be one of the first targets of the new law.
“They send cars to follow me, to intimidate me. They have people telling me it’s not just prison for life, you can be shot also. If they come [and] arrest me, what can I do? I’m not going to leave and disgrace myself. I will stay in Hong Kong until the last day,” he said.
Some pro-Beijing officials have described the national security law as Hong Kong’s “second return” after authorities failed to tame the city politically following its handover from Britain on July 1, 1997.
Hong Kong’s plight should set off alarm bells for everyone, said Mr Lai. “If we allow China, which is definitely going to become the biggest economy in the world, to impose its values and belligerent behaviour, the world will not have peace,” he said.