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Lawmakers vote for Article 23 in the chamber of the Legislative Council, in Hong Kong, on March 19.PETER PARKS/Getty Images

Hong Kong has passed a national-security law that will further criminalize dissent in the Chinese territory, disregarding widespread criticism from human-rights groups, media organizations and Western governments.

The city’s leader, Chief Executive John Lee, hailed the unanimous adoption of the bill Tuesday by the “patriots only” legislature as a “historic moment.”

He said the new law would enable the government to “effectively punish, prevent and suppress acts endangering national security” and guard against “colour revolutions and those advocating Hong Kong independence.”

Offences created under the legislation include treason, insurrection, acts with seditious intent and the unlawful sharing of state secrets. The maximum sentence for several of them is life in prison, and there are tough additional penalties for those found guilty of “colluding with external forces.”

Referencing previous protests, including the widespread unrest of 2019, Mr. Lee said that “from now on, Hong Kong people will never have to experience the pain we experienced before.”

The 2019 demonstrations were sparked by a controversial bill allowing extradition to China. As lawmakers were preparing to pass the law, protesters surrounded the legislature to prevent anyone from entering, thus blocking the law’s passage.

The legislation passed Tuesday is far wider in scope and will more fundamentally reshape Hong Kong’s legal system and the rights of the city’s residents. But this time there were no protesters outside, and the dozens of police assigned to guard the legislature milled about aimlessly.

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Police officers stand guard outside the Legislative Council, in Hong Kong, on March 19.Louise Delmotte/The Associated Press

That this was the case – that Hong Kong’s protest movement has already been reined in and dismantled by an earlier national-security law, imposed on the city by Beijing in 2020 – might seem to belie the urgency with which lawmakers took up this new law, known as Article 23, even as officials insisted there were “loopholes” in dire need of plugging.

While Article 23′s passage has been unusually fast, the bill having reached the legislature just 11 days ago, it completes a process that began more than two decades ago, fulfilling a proviso in Hong Kong’s Basic Law, the city’s de facto constitution, requiring the territory to “enact laws on its own” to prohibit treason, secession, sedition, subversion, the theft of state secrets and foreign interference.

The city’s government first tried to fulfill Article 23 in 2003, but the move sparked mass protests amid fears the proposed legislation would undermine Hong Kong’s civil and political freedoms.

Speaking Tuesday, lawmaker Regina Ip, who at the time was the security minister in charge of pushing the legislation through, said that had she been successful, Hong Kong “would have not seen the 79-day Occupy Central movement in 2014″ or the even larger protests in 2019.

That latter demonstrations saw a heavy police crackdown on the anti-extradition bill protests and grew more violent and disruptive throughout the year, with protesters fighting police in the streets, storming the legislature, occupying university campuses and shutting down the city’s airport. The demonstrations were already sputtering out in 2020 with the onset of COVID-19 when Beijing bypassed the local authorities to impose a national security law on Hong Kong, banning secession, subversion and colluding with foreign forces.

Since then, almost every prominent activist and opposition lawmaker has been arrested or forced into exile. Civil society groups and critical media, including the city’s most popular tabloid, Apple Daily, have been forced to close, and hundreds of thousands of Hong Kongers have moved overseas. An overriding focus on national security above all else has created a stifling atmosphere, alarming foreign investors, putting off tourists and hampering Hong Kong’s economic recovery from the pandemic.

Some Hong Kongers have expressed hope that the government, having fulfilled its constitutional duty on Article 23, can now finally focus on the economy. But the prospect of a renewed security crackdown has many on edge, despite lawmakers’ promises that the new legislation will only affect a small minority – something that was also said about the 2020 law.

While Beijing’s law has already reshaped the city’s political environment, the new legislation could go even further, said Maya Wang, China director for Human Rights Watch.

“The new security law will usher Hong Kong into a new era of authoritarianism. Now even possessing a book critical of the Chinese government can violate national security and mean years in prison in Hong Kong,” she said.

Officials have warned that owning old copies of Apple Daily could be considered seditious, and media organizations have warned that Article 23 will further stifle independent reporting in Hong Kong. Chambers of commerce and business leaders have expressed concerns that tough language on state secrets could be used to rein in due diligence work, as it has in China, while prohibitions on dealing with “external forces” could put off investors.

Western governments, including those of Canada, Britain, the United States and the European Union, all criticized the law prior to its passage, warning that the offences contained within are overly broad and risk undermining human rights.

In a submission to the Hong Kong government, Ottawa also objected to repeated comparisons by officials to Canada’s own National Security Act, which is subject to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. While there are human-rights protections built into Hong Kong’s Basic Law, the ultimate arbiter of these is China’s National People’s Congress, which has intervened several times in court cases to “interpret” the city’s constitution in ways it sees fit.

British lawmaker Alistair Carmichael, chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Hong Kong, said Article 23 was “another backward step for human rights in Hong Kong under Beijing’s increasingly authoritarian rule.”

“Hong Kongers deserve better than this steady repression of their rights and democratic freedoms,” he added.

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