Hong Kong’s New Security Law Spells Further Repression

By Brian Dooley

Hong Kong’s legislature today rushed through another new national security law aimed at suppressing any hint of dissent.  The new law takes effect on Saturday, and cites 39 new crimes, including espionage and “external interference.” Some of the new offenses carry a sentence of life in prison.

Human Rights First reported extensively on the first national security law in 2020. We worked with local legal scholars at the Law Department of the University of Hong Kong to explain what that law might mean, and our fears were confirmed – since then many leading dissidents have been jailed or driven into exile.

I had spent much of the previous year reporting from Hong Kong’s street protests, being tear-gassed and threatened by the police, and filming their attacks on protesters.

I spoke at events in Hong Kong and wrote in the local press, urging accountability for violent police behavior, and for Hong Kong not to slide into full Beijing-style repression.

We advocated to the U.S. Congress on what action it should take to support those pushing for peaceful reform, and for local activists, we produced a series of guides in English and Chinese on how to hide from digital surveillance, and how to delete digital histories. That first 2020 national security law looked ominous, and we feared the worst. We were right.

Our 2020 report on that law warned it could spell the end of Hong Kong’s autonomy and enable further direct attacks on human rights lawyers. Leading legal figures, including Albert Ho, known for their human rights work, have since been sent to prison.

Now this new draconian law threatens an even deeper level of repression. Known locally as Article 23, it gives the police new powers, including being able to detain suspects without charge for 16 days, up from the current 48 hours. The police from now will also be able to prevent suspects from meeting lawyers.

Hong Kong’s leader John Lee says the law is necessary to guard against “potential sabotage and undercurrents that try to create troubles”, including “ideas of an independent Hong Kong.”

The new law includes vague language about “state secrets” and “international organizations,” reminiscent of undefined legal terms in Chinese law, where activists have been jailed for “picking quarrels.”

Last week the bipartisan U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China published a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken criticizing the new laws and urging the U.S. government to “take additional steps to protect American citizens and businesses”.  It suggests that the State Department “should thoroughly re-evaluate business and travel advisories to inform the American public of the risks presented” by the Hong Kong government, and notes that the “U.S. Administration has not sanctioned any Hong Kong government official since August 2020.”

We continue to engage with Hong Kong activists in exile and, more challengingly, with those still in Hong Kong, and respond to their requests for help as we can.

In May I will be speaking at the Hague in the Netherlands at an Art and Culture Hong Kong (ACHK) symposium analyzing the connections between art, culture, and politics in the context of Hong Kong. I’ll be presenting Human Rights First’s experience of these issues in Ukraine, Ireland, and elsewhere.

The space in which Human Rights Defenders in Hong Kong can operate is now suffocatingly small, but we will continue to support them however we can.



  • Brian Dooley

Published on March 19, 2024


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