Hong Kong society felt the effects of the new law even before anyone saw its contents. Ahead of the law’s implementation on Tuesday, many protesters deleted their Twitter accounts and Telegram messaging app groups, fearful their posts could be used as evidence against them. The founding members of the pro-democracy group Demosisto—Joshua Wong, Nathan Law, Agnes Chow, and Jeffrey Ngo—resigned over fears of the new law. The group itself disbanded. Pro-independence group Hong Kong National Front also disbanded its local branch and moved operations to Taipei, Taiwan.
Article 23 of Hong Kong’s mini-constitution tasked the city’s government with enacting a national security law. But when the legislature tried to pass the law in 2003, half a million people protested, forcing the chief executive to scrap the bill. After last year’s pro-democracy protests, Beijing decided to bypass the Hong Kong legislature and approve a plan to impose the law on Hong Kong during its annual National People’s Congress meeting in May.
The law establishes the Committee for Safeguarding National Security. Under the supervision of Beijing’s central government, it works in secret and operates outside of judicial oversight. The law also empowers a section of the police force—which can include officers from China—to focus on national security cases. A new division in the Department of Justice will prosecute national security cases. Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam will appoint the division’s leader.
Lam also chooses the judges who hear national security cases, but the special Office for Safeguarding National Security will take over cases officials consider more serious. Staffed with mainland officials, it can send criminals to China to face trial there and is not subject to Hong Kong law.
The crimes of terrorism, subversion, secession, and foreign interference are so broad they encompass vandalizing a metro station, blockading a road, providing funding or support to protesters, and meeting with foreign lawmakers to push for sanctions. The maximum punishment is life imprisonment.
The law applies not only to Hong Kong residents but also to nonresidents in Hong Kong as well as anyone residing outside the city. The law’s interpretation is solely in the hands of the Politburo Standing Committee, which means Beijing will get what it wants.