Hong Kong’s government said it has started work on new national security laws it intends to pass soon, four years after China imposed sweeping legislation in the wake of massive pro-democracy protests.
John Lee, chief executive of the semi-autonomous city, said on Tuesday that while Hong Kong “as a whole looks calm and very safe”, it still had to look out for “potential sabotage and undercurrents that try to create troubles, particularly some of the independent Hong Kong ideas that are still embedded in some people’s minds”.
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“We can’t afford to wait. It’s for 26 years we’ve been waiting. We shouldn’t wait any longer,” Lee said at a news conference, describing it as the city’s constitutional responsibility dating back to its 1997 handover to China from British colonial rule.
Officials announced a public consultation period for the new law which will begin on Tuesday and end on February 28.
The security law – mandated by Article 23 of the city’s mini-constitution – will cover five additional offences: treason, insurrection, espionage, destructive activities endangering national security, and external interference. It also advocates tighter control of foreign political organisations linked to the city.
The mini-constitution, the Basic Law, calls for the city to enact a national security law. But it’s been delayed for decades because of widespread public opposition based on fears it would erode civil liberties.
In 2003, an attempt to pass a version of the law sparked street protests that drew half a million people leading to the resignation of the security minister and the legislation to be shelved.
In 2019, pro-democracy protests triggered by a government plan for an extradition bill with China, rocked the city, bringing hundreds of thousands of people to the streets.
In response, Beijing imposed a national security law to punish four major crimes – secession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with foreign forces – with sentences of as long as life in prison. More than 30 people have been convicted under the law, while dozens have been held in pre-trial detention for more than two years.
A 110-page consultation document to be submitted to the Legislative Council cites similar laws in Britain, the United States, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and Singapore.
The document states that Hong Kong is under increasing threat from foreign espionage and intelligence operations, and cites the months of pro-democracy protests in 2019.
Lee said he anticipated “badmouthing” of the new laws but insisted it would soon dissipate. “When people see that this law will bring security and stability, they will love it,” he said.
Freedoms would be safeguarded and the laws would meet international standards, he said. “I must stress that the Basic Law Article 23 legislation must be done … as soon as possible,” he added.
Al Jazeera’s Patrick Fok, reporting from Hong Kong, said it seemed “very unlikely” there would be protests similar to those in 2019 in opposition to the new proposed laws.
“Pro-democracy lawmakers in particular are now out of government. Many of them have been exiled and arrested. This is a very different political climate that we’re talking about now here in 2024,” he said.