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A look at the security legislation that Hong Kong's government is working to pass

ROB SCHMITZ, HOST:

Hong Kong is moving ahead to pass more national security legislation that it says is needed to stabilize the region. Critics say the legislation is too broad and gives even more power to Hong Kong's government, and therefore Beijing, to control civil society. So we had NPR's Emily Feng look into the bill.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: The bill is called Safeguarding National Security. And it's actually mandated by Hong Kong's own constitution under Article 23, requiring Hong Kong to create laws to punish treason and secession. But when Hong Kong first tried to do that in 2003, this happened.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Shouting in non-English language).

FENG: Mass protests that forced Hong Kong lawmakers...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Executive Council - very early this morning, the Executive Council decided to defer the resumption of second reading of the Basic Law 23.

FENG: ...To shelve the proposal. That was more than 20 years ago. Hong Kong activist Sam Yip was in high school then, and it was the first ever protest he joined since the city came under Beijing's rule in 1997. He says it was life-changing.

SAM YIP: That's quite impressive for me because, well, I can never imagine that Hong Kong or Hong Kong peoples at the time really that supportive on democracy.

FENG: But having failed in 2003, Hong Kong will finally pass new Article 23 legislation in the coming weeks. A full draft was released last Friday. For Yip, Article 23 is deja vu.

YIP: The PRC can interfere of Hong Kong because they expanded definition on state secrets.

FENG: And the proposal is on top of a drastic national security law China, or the PRC, already passed in 2020 for Hong Kong. Hong Kong politician Regina Ip was the city's security minister back in 2003. She championed the idea of pushing through an Article 23-related law. And she is now one of the new bill's staunchest defenders, saying on this talk show it was needed during mass protests in 2019.

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REGINA IP: Now we would have had the offense of secession and subversion, overthrow of government, which means that if the rioters started waving pro-independence banners, we could have prosecuted them, which means that it would not have been necessary for Beijing to step in and introduce its own national security law.

FENG: The current Article 23 bill is way more aggressive than the version it proposed in 2003. It can deny people arrested access to a lawyer at first or a lawyer of their choice. It's also created new types of offenses. So, for example, unauthorized acts related to a computer or electronic systems can be punished by up to a life sentence under the proposal. The vagueness of this language and how terms like national security and state secrets are used in the new bill are alarming to legal experts, including Alvin Cheung, an affiliate scholar at the U.S. Asia Law Institute at New York University.

ALVIN CHEUNG: It's clear that the current bill much more closely tracks the mainland's all-embracing concept of national security.

FENG: The mainland as in the rest of China, where authorities just widened their legal catchall definition of national security to include, quote, "work secrets." Hong Kong is now moving at a rapid clip to pass the new legislation. In 2003, there was a three-month period where the public submitted opinions and debated the bill's merits before it was quashed.

CHEUNG: Whereas what we see now with 2024 is, you know, a 30-day consultation overlapping with the Lunar New Year holidays.

FENG: The new bill is now being pushed full speed through a legal committee in Hong Kong and is expected to be passed by next month.

Emily Feng, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.