Understanding the National Security Law: A Brief History

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To grasp the significance of the forthcoming national security legislation, one must understand its evolution throughout the last few decades of Hong Kong’s history.

Photo: Extradition Bill protest, courtesy of Studio Incendo on Flickr / CC BY 2.0.

From 17 November, 1967 onward, variations of the National Security Law have been brought to the table in Hong Kong’s government over the last few decades. They take precedence to the bill in its final form, realised on 28 May 2020, as Beijing moved to approve the divisive bill.

Article 23 of the Basic Law, which was enacted in 1990 and fully adopted in Hong Kong after the 1997 handover, requires Hong Kong to enact its own laws on treason, secession, sedition, and subversion, and it would become Beijing’s justification to intervene in Hong Kong politics for decades to come.

It began in the 60s

A fossil of the Article 23 legislation can be found in the Public Order Ordinance (POO), which was enacted on 17 November, 1967 by the British colonial government during the Hong Kong 1967 leftist riots in order to give the Hong Kong police power to arrest pro-communist rioters.

Lawmakers have amended the POO dozens of times throughout Hong Kong’s history, but its most controversial amendment is the Public Order (Amendment) Ordinance 1997, which was passed on 14 June of that year.

The amendment was passed in response to a resolution written by the NPC of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) under Article 160, which scrapped the 1992 and 1995 POO amendments that repealed certain provisions of the POO that weren’t in accordance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). 

The 1997 amendment modified the notification procedure of an intended public meeting and prohibited a public meeting on the grounds of “national security” and “protection of the rights and freedoms of others”.

Photo: Regina Ip, courtesy of Prosperity Horizons on Wikimedia Commons.

Into the 2000s

On 20 December, 2000 Regina Ip, who at the time served as the Secretary for Security, attempted to amend POO by increasing notice given for a public meeting and increasing the maximum penalty to five years imprisonment and a fine of HK$5,000.

A member of the legislative council at that time, Margaret Ng, compared the proposed amendment to Article 23 saying, “It is an amendment directly restricting speech and political conviction. By bringing in, in this crude manner, the concept of “national security”, the Government has actually ventured into Article 23 territory without drawing attention to it.”

Another member of the Legislative Council, Cheung Man-Kwong, said, “At that moment, provisions related to subversion, mutiny, secession and treason as contained in Article 23 of the Basic Law have not been enacted into laws. If these provisions are enacted into law, national safety might combine with the POO so that the Ordinance will turn into an extremely powerful weapon to restrict people’s freedom of expression.”

The amendment was not passed, but soon after, similar legislation resurfaced in 2002. Qian Qichen, Vice Premier of the State Council, encouraged the passage of Article 23 legislation with immense support from Elsie Leung, who at the time served as the Secretary for Justice, and Regina Ip. The legislation was met with concerns from the members of the legislative council and protests of over 60,000 marchers on 15 December that year.

A few months later, the National Security Bill was introduced on 26 February, 2003 by Regina Ip. Concerns regarding the bill still lingered from the previous Article 23 legislation proposal, as members of the council felt it was a threat to the rights and freedoms of Hong Kong residents. The bill would go beyond what is strictly required by Article 23 of the Basic Law, and it used vague verbiage that provided no clarification as to what the terms would mean. Offences of treason, subversion, sedition and secession were defined in broad and vague terms.

On 6 July of that year, Tung Chee-hwa, Hong Kong’s first chief executive, announced a second reading of a watered-down security law in response to the 500,000 protestors who took to the streets on 1 July after its initial introduction. The bill was postponed indefinitely due to the mass protest and the resignation of Executive Councillor James Tien Pei-chun. 

Photo: 31st day of Occupy/Umbrella Movement, courtesy of Katie Brinn at Flickr / CC BY 2.0.

Occupy and onward

In December 2014, Beijing advisor Chen Zuoer, called out Hong Kong for its failure to pass a national security law in response to the Occupy Movement of 2014, comparing Hong Kong to Macao, which passed its national security law in 2009. 

In late June 2015, Beijing passed a national security law, which would give formal backing to the role of the new National Security Commission, which was established on 12 November, 2013 and headed by President Xi Jinping.

Although Hong Kong’s past Chief Executive, Leung Chun-ying, denied that the law was a precursor to pressure enacting Article 23, pro-democracy politicians remained skeptical as Article 36 of the bill stated, “The Special Administrative Region of Hong Kong and the Special Administrative Region of Macao must fulfill their responsibility to safeguard national security.”

In early April 2018, Professor Benny Tai came under fire after he made hypothetical comments about Hong Kong’s independence at a conference in Taiwan. Tai maintained that he was being used as a scapegoat in order to excuse further interference from Beijing. 

Photo: Professor Benny Tai, courtesy of Iris Tong on Wikimedia Commons.

Tai said, “We cannot decide what we should say or what we should not say just based on some so-called political red lines. I cannot see anything that I’ve said contradicts the existing laws of Hong Kong, and if Beijing, the Communist Party wants to limit more of the Hong Kong people’s freedom, they can use all kinds of excuses. I was being used to justify the future for stricter limitations on people’s right to express in Hong Kong.”

When asked if Tai was leading the way towards the Article 23 legislation, Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung denied the claims, saying they were “absolutely unrelated”. Despite this, scholars worried that the pro-establishment would use Tai to push forward Article 23.

In November 2019 Zhang Xiaoming, Director of the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office wrote a 6,000 word article, connecting the 2019 Hong Kong Extradition Bill protests with the need for a national security law. 

Upon mounting pressure from Beijing, on 22 May, 2020 Chief Executive Carrie Lam formally announced full support for the national security law. Nearly a week later, the NPC approved legislation for the national security law with a vote of 2,878-1 and six abstentions, and as of writing this article, have proceeded into drafting the law.

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