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The US Must Respond to Hong Kong’s New Security Law

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Trans-Pacific View | Diplomacy | East Asia

The US Must Respond to Hong Kong’s New Security Law

The U.S. must safeguard its nationals and business interests in Hong Kong as well as reevaluate the city’s status on the international stage.

The US Must Respond to Hong Kong’s New Security Law
Credit: Depositphotos

The recent push by Hong Kong to legislate a rigorous national security law, also known as the Article 23 legislation, within 12 days drew world-wide criticism. This development, aimed at embedding China’s national security edicts within Hong Kong’s legal framework, is a clear sign of eroding freedoms in a city once renowned for its autonomy and vibrant open society. It marks a critical tipping point that demands prompt and decisive actions from the United States. 

The U.S. response should span from safeguarding its nationals and business interests in Hong Kong to developing a comprehensive U.S. strategy for reevaluating and repositioning Hong Kong’s status on the international stage going forward.

Some of the crimes within the proposed Article 23 legislation – encompassing “collusion with foreign forces,” “espionage,” and “theft of state secrets” – are alarmingly broad and nebulous. Such legislation, by its very nature, could easily stifle freedom of speech, and normal inquiries under the guise of national security. 

The Hong Kong Bar Association’s warnings of a “chilling effect” on legitimate activities and the concerns among stakeholders about the law’s implications for investigative journalism and business due-diligence activities underscore the law’s potential to significantly curtail civil liberties. The government could classify virtually any information, whether undisclosed or publicly available, as a “state secret,” provided that the authorities deem its disclosure harmful to national interests.

Particularly alarming is the potential impact on U.S. nationals and businesses operating in Hong Kong, who now face the threat of arbitrary detention and legal action under these broad and malleable national security definitions. About 70,000 Americans and 1,300 U.S. companies are currently present in Hong Kong, although about 20 percent of Americans in Hong Kong have already left the city over the past two years. The number of U.S. companies operating in the city has fallen for four consecutive years and is now at the lowest level since 2004.

This situation echoes China’s historical pattern of using national security as a pretext to suppress dissent, control information, and detain foreign nationals. The past actions of the Chinese government, including the manipulation of definition of state secrets to detain U.S. nationals and conduct ungrounded raids on U.S. businesses in recent months, may forecast the expansion of Chinese coercive actions and potential infringement of U.S. interests in Hong Kong posed by this legislation.

Another worrisome part is China has updated its Anti-Espionage Law and State Secret Law to tighten its grip on information under the pretext of national security, in line with the recent legislation of the Foreign Relations Law and Anti-Foreign Sanctions Law, a clear response to the escalating competition between the U.S. and China. Within this broader geopolitical context, Article 23 raises concerns that Hong Kong is being strategically transformed to orchestrate as a key leverage for China, and potentially its allies such as Russia, to exert its influence. This move appears to be part of its economic statecraft strategy to take U.S. capital and nationals hostage, and when deemed necessary, to diminish U.S. influence and oversight in this international financial hub, facilitating illicit financial activities and enabling the circumvention of U.S. regulations on dual-use technology such as semiconductors.

Given the extensive presence of American businesses and nationals in the city, it is imperative to ensure the safety and rights of U.S. citizens in Hong Kong and consider sanctions against officials responsible for the erosion of the city’s autonomy and freedoms. The U.S. has already taken steps in this direction with the enactment of the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, Hong Kong Autonomy Act and the issuance of Executive Order 13936, aimed at holding accountable those who undermine Hong Kong’s autonomy. 

The necessity for further action in response to the proposed legislation cannot be overstated. Since August 2020, the United States has not imposed sanctions on any officials from the Hong Kong government – a situation that, given the urgency of the moment, requires reassessment. The U.S. government must escalate its efforts to address China’s crackdown on Hong Kong, thereby signaling the seriousness of U.S. concerns. 

Beijing’s strategy of repressing and forcibly transforming Hong Kong into an illiberal enclave – a loyal cash cow for autocrats that weakens the city’s ties to the international order – demands a robust response. To counter this, the U.S. should impose sanctions on those responsible and collaborate with allies to reconsider Hong Kong’s status and its participation in critical international organizations like the World Trade Organization and APEC. The activities and status of the Hong Kong Economic Trade Office in the U.S. should be subject to demotion and ongoing scrutiny. These measures are vital to prevent China from using Hong Kong as a backdoor to undermine the international system and spread harmful influence. 

Article 23 transcends being a mere domestic concern for Hong Kong; it poses a profound challenge to the international order. It is essential for the United States to devise a new strategic approach and send an unequivocal message aimed at curbing escalating aggressiveness from the Chinese and Hong Kong governments. This critical juncture requires more than just watchfulness. Actions are needed to safeguard U.S. citizens and businesses, and stand in solidarity with the people of Hong Kong.