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The Irish Times view on Hong Kong’s new law: China turns the ratchet

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The national security legislation that came into force in Hong Kong on Saturday represents a further erosion of the freedoms that have distinguished life in the city from that in mainland China. Despite attempts by the authorities to reassure foreign companies that the law will not affect them, it will fuel anxiety locally and internationally that the principle of One Country Two Systems is becoming an increasingly empty slogan.

The new law supplements the National Security Law imposed by Beijing in 2020 following the crushing of pro-democracy demonstrations. The 2020 law has already seen hundreds of dissident figures jailed, made opposition political activity almost impossible and severely curtailed media freedom. The new law includes 39 offences of treason, sedition, insurrection, incitement to mutiny, sabotage, external interference, theft of state secrets and espionage, some of which carry a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.

The law includes a vague definition of state secrets that journalists fear could expose them to prosecution if they report information disclosed confidentially by people working in government.

Unlike the national security law imposed by Beijing, the new law includes a public interest clause but it remains unclear how effective that safeguard will be.

Hong Kong’s authorities have shown undue haste in pushing the bill through the Legislative Council, allowing only a four-week consultation and wrapping up its scrutiny in a week of marathon sittings. The 89 members of the legislature, from which politicians critical of Beijing are excluded, backed the legislation unanimously.

Hong Kong continues to enjoy more freedom than mainland China and its independent judiciary and rule of law are essential to maintaining its place as one of the world’s leading financial services centres. But the latest turn of the authoritarian ratchet in the city will further chill the atmosphere, not only for Hong Kong citizens who cherish their remaining freedoms but for international investors too.

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