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Authorities in Hong Kong crack down even more on perceived threats to their power


Political life in Hong Kong is unrecognizable from a few years ago. That's when China's central government passed a national security law and crushed pro-democracy forces in a territory that was supposed to have a different system from the rest of the country. This week, Hong Kong added one more thing to the list of changes because the city's legislature passed another national security law, which NPR's John Ruwitch is following from Beijing. Hey there, John.

JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Why was it seen as necessary to pass another national security law for Hong Kong?

RUWITCH: Yeah. Well, I mean, you can think of the first one as almost an emergency measure, right? It was imposed by Beijing on Hong Kong in mid-2020, following basically a year of protests that were, at times, massive, at times, violent, and that really rattled Beijing. The second one, the one that just passed, was required by Hong Kong's Basic Law, which is the city's mini constitution, which came into force in 1997 when the U.K. handed Hong Kong back to China. The thing is, for years, this one's been on the backburner. In 2003, the territory's first chief executive tried to pass the law. Half a million people showed up on the streets to protest, and it was put on the back burner. That kind of protest just isn't possible anymore. And the current government had strong backing from Beijing. So they moved forward on it and they did so quickly.

INSKEEP: OK. So they did the thing that they'd wanted to do for a while. How does the law...


INSKEEP: ...Change things in Hong Kong?

RUWITCH: Well, the new law, which is called the Safeguarding National Security Law, expands the scope of national security crimes as well as the government's ability to quash perceived threats. I mean, it has lines in it on things like espionage, the theft of state secrets, working with foreign governments to commit offences, these types of things that were not included in the first law. John Burns is an emeritus professor of politics at the University of Hong Kong, and he says this law is vague and it hands the authorities lots of discretion.

JOHN BURNS: Our accountability system has been degraded, I would say, as a result of this process since 2020. This is my overriding concern is accountability, and we do not see institutions to hold the government to account locally.

RUWITCH: Yeah. So in other words, they can pretty much interpret this as they see fit.

INSKEEP: OK. So what does this mean for this former British territory that has in the past had contested elections in a free press and independent courts and a lot of other things that we would recognize as democratic?

RUWITCH: Yeah. A lot of that doesn't really exist anymore. And rights groups, you know, think that this new law is just going to further deteriorate civil liberties, which they say the first national security law and various other policies have done already. And remember, Hong Kong was, as you said, supposed to have a high degree of autonomy for 50 years after returning to China. But critics say Beijing has reneged on that. Here's Maya Wang. She's with Human Rights Watch.

MAYA WANG: Both of these laws effectively penalize and criminalize basic human rights that people in Hong Kong have long enjoyed, cherished and defended. They spell out harsh penalties - long years of imprisonment for vague and broad crimes.

RUWITCH: Yeah. So she says these laws are basically transforming or have transformed Hong Kong from a free society into an authoritarian one. The Hong Kong government says these laws are necessary to make the city safer, to underpin stability and that that'll help shore up its role as a global finance hub. But that's uncertain. You know, some businesses are making noise about concerns about things like the wording around state secrets and what data is safe and that they can collect safely. And so it's just going to take time to get clear answers on that. This law takes effect on Saturday.

INSKEEP: NPR's John Ruwitch in Beijing. Thanks so much.

RUWITCH: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

John Ruwitch is a correspondent with NPR's international desk. He covers Chinese affairs.