The Hong Kong government has put a new set of the city's own national security laws on the agenda of the city’s legislature at the beginning of 2024.
The Security Bureau has finished the draft of the new law and will introduce the “Safeguarding National Security Bill (SNS)” to the Legislature in the coming weeks around the Chinese Lunar New Year. To prepare for the legislation, Chief Executive John Lee told lawmakers on January 25 that the government would set up an explaining team to present the SNS Bill to the business sector and a rebuttal team to refute online slanders of the proposed law.
Although Beijing imposed the National Security Law (NSL) on Hong Kong on June 30, 2020, according to Article 23 of the Basic Law, Hong Kong still has to enact its own set of laws to safeguard national security. The proposed SNS will “prohibit any act of treason, secession, sedition, subversion against the Central People’s Government, or theft of state secrets, to prohibit foreign political organizations or bodies from conducting political activities in the Region, and to prohibit political organizations or bodies of the Region from establishing ties with foreign political organizations or bodies.”
Under Beijing-imposed NSL, the city has criminalized four national security crimes — terrorism, secession, subversion and collusion. The current legislation seeks to cover more acts by prohibiting treason, sedition, theft of state secrets and foreign political ties.
A ready-to-pass bill
Reportedly, the government will skip some public consultation. Instead of tabling a white bill, it will submit the blue SNS Bill to the Legislative Council, which means the legal framework of the law has been determined, and there is little space for further amendment. Moreover, after Beijing rewrote Hong Kong's election rules in 2021, the newly formed “patriotic-only” Legislature has no space for oppositional voices, thus, the bill would likely be passed with little oppositional voices.
The transparency of the drafting process of the SNSL has stirred some worries. Victor Dawes, head of the Hong Kong Bar Association, stressed during the opening of the legal year on January 22 that the consultation must be “transparent and thorough” to refute claims that the government does not listen to the public. The president of the Law Society of Hong Kong, Chan Chak-ming, also stressed the necessity for the Hong Kong government to defend the SNS Bill and clarify misunderstandings and misconceptions about the situation in Hong Kong.
Within days, John Lee told the lawmakers that he would lead an “explaining team” to promote and explain the SNS bill to the business sector and international community and establish a “response and rebuttal team” led by Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee, Starry Lee Wai-king and Lai Tung-kwok to counter the propaganda of hostile forces and refute false claims and slander against the legislation on social media.
“Hostile foreign propaganda”
Lee told the lawmakers in the Interactive Exchange Q&A Session at the Legislative Council on January 25, 2024:
We had failed to pass the law once. I really think Hong Kongers have been a bit too gentle. They didn't realize how dangerous the world was or how many villains there were. They didn't know that the wolves were in charge and that foreign forces, like tigers, were eying up the fat pig that was Hong Kong. […] After the painful experience in 2019, we see the national security risk. Even though we are gentle, we have to be cautious against the villains, the hostile forces, and espionage […] Drawing from previous experience, hostile forces would engage in propaganda work, especially online, to smear and distort the legislation. If you spot such smears and slandering messages online, I hope you can notify the government; we will set up a “response and rebuttal team” to tell the truth to the public on social media.
More online policing?
To the government proposal, many Hongkongers simply equate it as an official title of the mainland version of the 50 Cent Party or Internet Water Army, who are paid to spread pro-government narratives online. Exiled Hong Kong cartoonist expressed such a view through his drawing:
RMB 0.5 pic.twitter.com/wWxJ1XWmqS
— vawongsir (@vawongsir) January 25, 2024
Since the implementation of NSL, the police have charged quite a number of citizens citing the colonial sedition law; criticisms against the legislation of Article 23 can rarely be found publically on local social media platforms.
WriterHK imagined that the public timeline of Facebook would be flooded with sarcastic expressions of support regarding the legislation:
The major challenge of the “response and rebuttal team” is that the team discovers there aren’t any oppositional voices for them to rebut as everyone is daring [the government] “no retreat of the Article 23 Legislation! Pass it ASAP!”
However, there are also worries that the team would infiltrate into closed groups:
成立應變反駁隊? 係唔係即係個D仆街專門滲透去各個香港人群組, 之後發放D反駁資訊搞香港人, 反駁唔到之後就借國安法之名, “合法地”去群組起香港人底, 再拉我哋班香港人? 等我哋香港人任何自由嘅言論都唔敢響群組講? 國安法出咗前前後後搞到香港人有幾多說話唔敢再講? “光時Five缺”唔講得! “願榮Light歸香港”唔唱得, 唔播得, Melody都唔彈得! “香港人Add Oil”睇波睇亞運都唔可以用嚟打氣! ……….
Establishing a “response and rebuttal team”? Will it imply that the team would infiltrate Hongkongers’ groups and spread messages there? If they fail to refute their views, will they use NSL to uncover the users’ identities and arrest them? So we Hongkongers can’t even express ourselves freely inside the groups? After the implementation of NSL, many Hongkongers have been silenced. The slogans like “Revolution of the time” and “Five Demands” can’t be uttered, and the protest song “Glory to Hong Kong” can’t be played and sung. We can’t even chant “Hongkongers Add Oil” during sports events…
Overseas Hong Kong activist Alric Lee slammed such online policing on X:
Alarming to see #HongKong Govt forming a ‘Response & Rebuttal Team’ to police online speech. This reeks of authoritarian overreach and could throttle the essence of #FreeSpeech. Internet freedom is not a threat but a pillar of modern democracy. #DigitalRights https://t.co/DZk1W1erLm
— Alric Lee 李伊東 (@alric_lee) January 25, 2024