March 4, 2024

Three-and-a-half years after sweeping, Beijing-imposed national security legislation took effect in Hong Kong, remaking the city in the authoritarian mold of its sovereign mainland master, the local government on Tuesday unveiled details for a new security law.

Chief executive John Lee painted a hazy picture of lurking dangers threatening to destabilize Hong Kong, despite the 2020 national security law that authorities claim have “perfected” local political conditions.

“While we, society as a whole, looks calm and looks very safe, we still have to watch out for potential sabotage, undercurrents that try to create troubles,” Lee said, adding that “foreign agents” may still be operating in the city in a “deceptive way” and “embedding” secessionist ideas in the public’s mind.

In presenting nebulous yet urgent threats that only a strong state can neutralize, Lee is directly echoing Beijing’s propaganda line, which has increasingly depicted society as one besieged by “suspicious” activity that threatens to undermine national security.

“We can’t afford to wait. … The threats to national security—they are real,” Lee said.

An intentionally vague definition of “state secrets”

In a 110-page document submitted to the city legislature, authorities propose updating or creating new laws to cover crimes including espionage, theft of state secrets, “incitement to disaffection,” and the use of computers and electronic systems to commit acts endangering national security.

Notably, the proposed set of new laws, known as Article 23, would criminalize the theft or unlawful disclosure of “state secrets.” Yet the term is so vaguely defined that anything could plausibly fit under the umbrella of “state secrets”—a term that existing local laws do not use, except in reference to the need to enact Article 23.

Authorities recommend defining state secrets to include information on the economic, social, and technological development of China and Hong Kong that would “would likely endanger national security” if unlawfully disclosed. What constitutes endangerment of national security is presumably left to the government’s discretion.

The result: The government becomes judge, jury, and executioner of what makes something a piece of information and something else a state secret.

This is by design. Take China’s recently revised counterespionage law: It added a catch-all phrase in its definition of espionage to include not just state secrets and intelligence, but also “other documents, data, materials, or items related to national security.” Meanwhile, Beijing is working on updating its state secrets law to expand its coverage.

For now, authorities will hold a 100-day public consultation on the proposed security legislation. But with all opposition politicians and activists either in jail or exile, and any public demonstration against the government likely to be punished by jail time, the Hong Kong government’s security wish list will almost certainly come true.

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