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Hong Kong’s Article 23 Legislation Is Another Step Toward Authoritarian Rule

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Hong Kong’s Article 23 Legislation Is Another Step Toward Authoritarian Rule

The proposed bill would go even further than the National Security Law in restricting political freedoms and civil society. 

Hong Kong’s Article 23 Legislation Is Another Step Toward Authoritarian Rule
Credit: Depositphotos

In his novel “1984,” George Orwell depicted a horrifying totalitarian society where the entire population is under constant surveillance by Big Brother. “Thought police” arrest suspects at will, and individuals are constantly suspected of colluding with state enemies. Orwell’s apocalyptic vision reminds me of the current Hong Kong government’s proposed Article 23 legislation. The legislation goes far beyond the needs of national security, resembling a political project aiming at constructing a totalitarian society like Orwell’s.

The four-week public consultation on the legislation is extremely brief. Already under the rule of fear, Hong Kong’s beleaguered civil society has no room to express opposing views. Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee has even claimed that there is already consensus on the Article 23 legislation within society, indicating that its implementation appears inevitable. 

Some may wonder why the Hong Kong government is rushing to pass its own national security legislation, fulfilling Article 23 of the Basic Law, especially after China imposed the National Security Law on Hong Kong in 2020, giving the national security authorities enormous authority to eliminate deviant opposition in society. However, upon a closer look at the consultation paper, one may see that the proposed legislation will significantly extend the scope of the government’s control beyond what is established under the Hong Kong National Security Law. It will systematically establish micro-level political control over various aspects of society, eventually bringing Hong Kong under authoritarian rule.

First, the proposed legislation will revive the colonial-era sedition and treason offenses under the umbrella of the Hong Kong National Security Law. In addition to adopting these colonial-era offenses, the government explicitly indicated in the consultation paper that it intends to raise the punishments for such offenses, exerting stringent social and political control in the city. 

In recent years, the government has frequently used sedition charges to curb freedom of expression in Hong Kong. Individuals have been arrested and prosecuted under sedition charges for ordinary things such as criticizing vaccine policy and publishing children’s books. These colonial-era laws, long regarded as outdated and uncivilized, have yet to be repealed. Now falling into the hands of authoritarian rulers, they have become convenient tools for further tightening people’s freedoms.

Furthermore, the government’s intention to broaden the scope of monitoring under the existing Societies Ordinance will put the whole civil society under surveillance.  The government plans to encompass all registered organizations, including trade unions, company boards, school-incorporated management committees, and property owners’ corporations in the Societies Ordinance. Under the current Societies Ordinance, the police can compel organizations to surrender internal information such as personnel lists, external communication, and financial data without a court order. The consultation paper’s proposed widening of the scope of regulation will certainly result in further infringement upon the privacy and autonomy of civil groups. 

It is also proposed that the secretary for security be given the power to classify an organization as an unlawful organization based on its potential threat to national security or its ties to foreign political groups. However, the consultation paper does not specify what constitutes an “endangerment to national security” or a “political organization,” providing authorities with broad discretion to ban any group they dislike.

The broad definition of “external forces” and low threshold for the offenses of “external interference” and “espionage” will effectively sever the link between Hong Kong civil society and overseas organizations. The term “external forces” in the consultation paper refers not just to all foreign governments but also to overseas political organizations and their affiliates. Groups based abroad that monitor and advocate for human rights in Hong Kong may also be regarded as “external forces,” which the consultation paper describes as the greatest threat to national security. 

Furthermore, the paper describes “external intervention” and “espionage” as having low criminal thresholds. Collaborating with foreign forces to disseminate false or misleading information to influence the central or Hong Kong government’s policies may be considered a violation of the law. Consider the following scenario: A civil society group submits a human rights report to the United Nations (a foreign force). If the government criticizes the report as “malicious slander,” does this constitute a legal violation? It is clear that the government is concerned about the ongoing influence of  Hong Kong’s exiled activists and is attempting to cut off their connections with Hong Kong people through intimidation.

And the unusually broad definition of state secrets, consistent with Chinese law, makes it easy to fall into the trap of stealing state secrets and incurring serious consequences. The charge of theft of state secrets, as stated in the consultation paper, goes beyond military, diplomatic, and national security secrets to cover technological,  economic, and social development. Such an ambiguous definition is tricky and bound to lay traps. Organizations or media outlets that publish the truth about the pandemic, government policy failings, or even leadership corruption, for example, may be charged with stealing state secrets.

Exaggerating the threat of external forces is a classic tactic dictators use to legitimize their high-pressure domestic policies. When pushing through the Article 23 legislation, the Hong Kong government deliberately smeared the 2019 movement as a “color revolution” manipulated by “external forces” and linked the protests to foreign infiltration. 

However, the supposed external influence is merely a scarecrow. The authorities’ perceived opponents, and those they wish to eliminate swiftly through the implementation of Article 23 legislation, are unlikely to be external forces. Instead, these are the universal values of democracy, freedom, and human rights that the people of Hong Kong have persistently pursued.