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National Security Law

Since June 2020 when the People’s Republic of China’s parliament passed a National Security Law for Hong Kong, most observers have stated there has been a serious deterioration in human rights in Hong Kong.

The Hong Kong Government claim that human rights are better protected since the legislation was passed.

The National Security Law criminalises any act of:

  • secession – breaking away from the country;
  • subversion – undermining the power or authority of the central government;
  • terrorism – using violence or intimidation against people; and
  • collusion with foreign or external forces.

The law established a new Beijing-led security office in Hong Kong, with its own law enforcement personnel – neither of which come under the local authority’s jurisdiction. Hong Kong’s political leader, called the Chief Executive, now has the power to appoint judges to hear national security cases. Beijing also oversees how the law should be interpreted, rather than any Hong Kong judicial or policy body. If the law conflicts with any Hong Kong law, the Beijing law takes priority.

The National Security Law is also extraterritorial, that is it states it applies to anyone regardless of where they live in the world or if they are a citizen and/or resident of Hong Kong.

Events in Hong Kong since the imposition of the National Security Law until its second anniversary in June 2022, are detailed in a Commons Library debate pack.

Joint Declaration

Hong Kong was a British colony from 1842 until the UK transferred sovereignty over Hong Kong to the People’s Republic of China in 1997, after which it became a Special Administrative Region of China. In preparation of the handover, in 1984 Great Britain and China agreed the Joint Declaration on the Question of Hong Kong (Joint Declaration).

The Joint Declaration states that the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR) will be directly under the authority of the People’s Republic of China but will enjoy a “high degree of autonomy” and its social and economic systems and lifestyle will remain unchanged for fifty years.

However, even before the passing of the National Security law in 2020 there were growing concerns that the principle of ‘One Country, Two Systems’, in which Hong Kong is part of China but has separate legal and economic systems, was being steadily eroded. The UK Government catalogued such fears in its six-monthly reports on Hong Kong, as did the Foreign Affairs Committee in reports on Hong Kong and China in 2015 and 2019.

The Joint Declaration is a legally binding treaty but it contains no enforcement provisions.

In May 2020, China’s Embassy in the UK put out a statement on Hong Kong’s national security legislation saying it is “purely China’s internal affair, which no foreign country has the right to interfere in”.

The statement also said the “One Country, Two Systems” and the “high degree of autonomy” envisaged under the system had been “implemented faithfully” since Hong Kong’s handover.

Arrests warrants issued for activists abroad

According to a joint statement published by human rights organisations in December 2023, 260 people have been arrested under the National Security Law.

The Hong Kong authorities have also used the extra-territorial nature of the law to target individuals abroad. In March 2022, Benedict Rogers a British national living in the UK who runs the Hong Kong Watch, a charity which campaigns for human rights in the territory, said the Hong Kong Police had written to him stating he faced charges of “collusion with foreign forces”, should he return there.

In July 2023, police in Hong Kong issued arrest warrants for eight exiled Hong-Kongers, including former members of the Legislative Council, for reportedly committing offences under the National Security Law. A HK$1 million bounty was also offered for those offering information that leads to the arrest of those individuals. Three of the individuals were said to reside in the UK, and in response the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) stated that a senior official conducted a formal diplomatic démarche (official protest) of the Chinese Ambassador at the instruction of the Foreign Secretary.

In December 2023 another five arrest warrants were issued against activists including some based in the UK and the US, again with bounties offered.

The Foreign Secretary, Lord Cameron, issued a statement in response stating:

I have instructed officials in Hong Kong, Beijing and London to raise this issue as a matter of urgency with the Hong Kong and Chinese authorities.

We will not tolerate any attempt by any foreign power to intimidate, harass or harm individuals or communities in the UK. This is a threat to our democracy and fundamental human rights.

High profile national security trials

Two trials of those accused of committing offences under the National Security Law in Hong Kong, have received particular attention.

In December 2023 the trial began of Jimmy Lai, a pro-democracy advocate and media tycoon who owned the pro-democracy Apple Daily newspaper which shut down in 2021. He is charged with two charges of conspiracy to collude with foreign forces, and one of conspiracy to publish seditious material. The charges of collusion carry a sentence of up to life in prison. Mr Lai has British as well as Chinese citizenship. The UK Government have said that China does not recognise dual citizenship and are treating him solely as a Chinese citizen. The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office have said they have requested consular access to Mr Lai, and have sent diplomats from the UK’s consulate in Hong Kong to attend his trial, as well as calling on the Hong Kong authorities to end his prosecution and release him.

In November 2023, closing arguments were heard in the trial of 47 activists, who are charged with “conspiracy to subvert state power” after holding unofficial pre-election primary polls to choose candidates for elections to Hong Kong’s Legislative Council. The hearing came more than 1,000 days after the activists were first arrested.

Statement by China

In December 2023 the Media Freedom Coalition of countries, which includes the UK, the US, Canada, France, Germany and several other European countries, released a statement condemning the trial of Jimmy Lai and stating they were “deeply concerned at the Hong Kong and mainland Chinese authorities’ continued attacks on freedom of the press and their suppression of independent local media in Hong Kong”.

Asked about the statement a spokesperson for China’s Embassy in the UK responded:

We firmly oppose and strongly condemn the UK’s act in collusion with certain countries and organisation to make groundless accusations against Hong Kong-related affairs, which constitutes interference in China’s internal affairs.

Hong Kong upholds the rule of law, and protects freedom of expression, freedom of the press and other rights enjoyed by Hong Kong citizens in accordance with the law. Since the implementation of the National Security Law in Hong Kong, social stability in the Hong Kong SAR has been restored and development has returned to the right track. Freedom of expression and freedom of the press in Hong Kong have been better protected in a safe, stable environment underpinned by the rule of law.

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