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HONG KONG – Hong Kong’s leader confirmed on Tuesday, January 30, his intention to pass tighter national security laws soon to build on sweeping legislation Beijing imposed on the city in 2020, saying the city “could not afford to wait.”
Some business people, diplomats, and academics are watching developments closely, saying the prospect of new laws targeting espionage, state secrets, and foreign influence, known as Article 23, could have a deep impact on the global financial hub.
Chief Executive John Lee said the government will attempt to pass the laws “as soon as possible” but did not give a precise timetable for them to be approved by the city’s legislature.
“Why now? We can’t wait. I’ve said it very clearly. We can’t afford to wait. It’s for 26 years we’ve been waiting. We shouldn’t wait any longer,” Lee said, describing it as the city’s constitutional responsibility dating back to its 1997 handover to China from British colonial rule.
“While we, society as a whole, looks calm and looks very safe, we still have to watch out for potential sabotage, undercurrents that try to create troubles,” he said, saying some foreign agents could still be active in Hong Kong.
Lee said freedoms would be safeguarded and the laws would meet international standards.
A 110-page consultation document would be submitted to the Legislative Council on Tuesday afternoon, and the consultation would end on February 28.
The document outlines the need for new and updated laws covering the theft of state secrets, espionage, treason, sedition and sabotage, including the use of computers and electronic systems to conduct actions endangering national security.
Tighter control of foreign political organizations linked to the city is also advocated.
The consultation document warns that Hong Kong is under increasing threat from foreign espionage and intelligence operations, and cites the months of pro-democracy protests that rocked the city in 2019.
China and Hong Kong are “unavoidably subject to acts and activities endangering national security conducted by the agents or spies of external forces (including external political organizations or intelligence agencies)” in the city, it notes.
It defines a list of state secrets in Hong Kong, including economic, scientific and social secrets but says to be classed as such they would have to endanger national security if released.
While Chinese and Hong Kong government officials said the 2020 law was vital to restore stability after the protracted 2019 demonstrations, the new package has long been required under the mini-constitution, known as the Basic Law.
That document guides the former British colony’s relationship with its Chinese sovereign after 1997, and Article 23 stipulates that the city “shall enact laws on its own to prohibit acts and activities that endanger national security”.
Some legal scholars say as local laws, the new legislation could sharpen the at times vaguely worded 2020 law, and older colonial-era laws considered unworkable.
“It almost certainly will set red lines where the existing laws are vague, particularly in defining state secrets and espionage,” said Simon Young, a professor at the University of Hong Kong’s law school.
For example, the colonial-era espionage law refers to an “enemy” – a term the document describes too restrictive, preferring to expand the law to cover peacetime “external forces” as well, including foreign governments, organizations and individuals.
Lee said repeatedly that he believed the new laws would create a more stable and safe city and ultimately serve the interests of individuals, businesses and private organizations.
“Our legislation, of course is subject to scrutiny by both Hong Kong people….and international people,” he said.
“We are confident, we are proud, and we stand high because the principles we adopt conform with the international standard.”
The document cites similar laws in Britain, the United States, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and Singapore.
A previous government attempt to pass Article 23 laws was shelved after an estimated 500,000 people staged a peaceful protest in 2003, forcing the resignation of the then security minister. – Rappler.com