Wide-reaching offences and life in prison: Hong Kong’s National Security Law explained

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The controversial national security law in Hong Kong bears examination, beginning with the law’s offences and punishments. Parts two and three of this series are out now.

Photo by Studio Incendo / CC BY 2.0.

Bypassing Hong Kong’s legislature and public consultation, Beijing unanimously passed the national security legislation for Hong Kong on the evening of June 30, 2020, on the eve of the holiday commemorating the return of Hong Kong sovereignty to China. The law enables the authorities to crack down on dissidents in Hong Kong and abroad using harsh penalties, China-backed agencies set up in Hong Kong, and regulation of media and education. 

The law lists four offences: secession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with foreign forces to endanger national security. While the terms are broadly-defined, there seem to be references made to some means of protest Hong Kong people adapted last year, including reference to particular acts. 

Ten years

“A principal offender” or a person who “commits an offence of a grave nature” may be sentenced to life imprisonment or fixed-term imprisonment of not less than ten years. Those who “actively commit to the offences” could be sentenced to a fixed-term imprisonment of three to ten years. 

Secession: To organise, plan, commit or participate in acts of “dividing Hong Kong or other parts of China from the People’s Republic of China”, “changing Hong Kong’s legal status as well as other parts of China’s”, or “handing over Hong Kong or other Chinese territories to foreign countries”, regardless of whether it is by force or threat of force.

Subversion: Overthrowing or undermining the Chinese authorities or its basic system and Hong Kong’s body of power. Attacking or damaging premises and facilities of Hong Kong authorities and rendering its ability to perform its duties are on the list. So spray-painting and molotoving government buildings would be elevated from vandalism to subversion.

Terrorism: Serious violence against a person or persons, explosion, setting fire to property, and dissemination of toxic substances. Sabotage of transport facilities or means of transports, which occurred during last year’s anti-extradition bill movement, comes under this category. 

Photo by Oscar Chan from Pexels.

Colluding with foreign forces

To “steal, spy, obtain with payment, or unlawfully provide national secrets or intelligence concerning national security for a foreign country or overseas organisation.” Imposing sanctions, blockade, or hostility via unlawful means on the Hong Kong authorities and China is illegal, and so is inciting hatred towards them that could lead to serious consequences. 


Immediately following the passage of the law, Hong Kong pro-democracy group, Demosisto, disbanded; its leading members Joshua Wong, Agnes Chow, Nathan Law, and Jeffrey Ngo announced their resignation and withdrawal from the group. In 2019, the group’ s representatives met with United States officials concerning the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act. 

“A political imprisonment of up to ten years, being sent to, detained and tortured in the holding centre, or even being extradited directly to mainland China – no one is certain about tomorrow,” Joshua Wong said in his resignation statement

Hong Kong National Front, an advocacy group for Hong Kong independence, dismissed its members in Hong Kong but will continue its operation in Taiwan and the UK. 


Upon conviction of the above offences by a court, the person will be disqualified from competing in Legislative Council elections and District Council elections as candidates, holding any public office or serving as a member of the Chief Executive Election Committee, as stated in Article 35. Legislative councillors and officials who violate the law will have to step down and lose their qualifications for “standing for aforementioned elections or holding any of the aforementioned posts.” 

Teresa Cheng, the Secretary for Justice of Hong Kong, says the first day of its enactment that it is possible for such deprivation to be permanent as the law does not specify a time limit. 

Non-Hong Kong permanent residents who contravene the law from outside Hong Kong are also subject to prosecution, according to Article 38. Accused is guilty with no chance of proving innocence. If a PR is deemed to have violated the law in Hong Kong, deportation may be a punishment even if the person is not prosecuted.

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