Hong Kong protesters face life in prison as Beijing implements harsh new law

Tommy Walker
Protesters gather at a shopping mall in Central during a pro-democracy protest - AP Photo/Vincent Yu

Beijing unveiled the national security law it is imposing on Hong Kong on Tuesday, punishing crimes of secession and sedition with up to life in prison and stoking concern it heralds a more authoritarian era for China's most freewheeling city.

Particulars of the law are expected to ratchet up tensions with the United States, Britain and other Western governments amid fears it will crush freedoms in the global financial hub.

The much-anticipated law took effect from 1500 GMT on June 30, an hour before the 23rd anniversary of the handover of the former British colony to Chinese rule in 1997.

Lai believes his support for Hong Kong's pro-democracy protests could soon land him behind bars - ANTHONY WALLACE/AFP via Getty Images

Also likely to unnerve pro-democracy activists and Western governments is a prison term of up to life for the crime of colluding with foreign forces.

China's central government will exercise jurisdiction over the enforcement of the national security legislation and it will trump Hong Kong law in the event of a conflict, according to the law, confirming draft details released this month.

Beijing had kept full details of the law shrouded in secrecy and even Hong Kong's Beijing-backed leader, Carrie Lam, said she was not privy to the draft despite her insisting most people had no reason to worry.

Critics of the law, which was not made public until after it was passed, have slammed the lack of transparency up to the moment it was unveiled and the speed at which it was pushed through.

China's government says the law is necessary to tackle secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces following anti-government protests that escalated in June last year and plunged the city into its biggest crisis in decades.

Authorities in mainland China and Hong Kong have repeatedly blamed “foreign forces” for fomenting the unrest.

Some pro-Beijing officials have described the national security law as Hong Kong's “second return” after authorities failed to tame the city politically after its handover from British rule on July 1, 1997.

Officials in Beijing and Hong Kong have tried to ease concerns about the law, saying it will not erode the city's high degree of autonomy promised for 50 years under a “one country, two systems” formula that guarantees freedoms not seen on the mainland.

But Chinese security agencies will be able to set up bases in Hong Kong, and lawyers have warned that it will pave the way for “hand-picked” judges that will erode the city’s legal and judicial independence.

“It’s a very dark day for anyone who is involved in the democracy movement,” one Hong Kong barrister who asked to remain anonymous. “People are afraid of a very harsh crackdown with activists being arrested and made subject to the mercies of this very draconian law.”

Mr Lai says the new law is the end for Hong Kong - ANTHONY WALLACE/AFP via Getty Images

Jimmy Lai, one of the city’s most outspoken pro-democracy tycoons, on Tuesday declared “the death of Hong Kong,” as news of the law's passing broke. 

Mr Lai, 72, the owner of Next Digital, a rambunctious anti-Beijing media group, has been warned he could be one of the first targets of the new law, which criminalises secession, terrorism, subversion and collusion with foreign forces.

“If the law is retroactive, I will be in hell. Not just jail,” he tells The Daily Telegraph in his office in suburban Tseung Kwan O. "This is definitely the death of Hong Kong."

He has already been labelled a “traitor” by Chinese state media, who have accused him of conspiring with foreign nations and stirring up the pro-democracy protests that have plunged the Asian financial hub into crisis for the past year.

“They send cars to follow me, to intimidate me. They have people telling me it’s not just prison for life, you can be shot also… If they come arrest me, what can I do? I’m not going to leave and disgrace myself..I will stay in Hong Kong until the last day,” he told The Telegraph.

The business community has largely fallen into step with Beijing’s line, amid assurances that the city will remain lucrative, but the UK has led global political protests at China’s insistence on pushing through the unpopular law.

“China has ignored its international obligations regarding Hong Kong. This is a grave step, which is deeply troubling,” said Dominic Raab, the British foreign secretary. The UK has already offered a “path to citizenship” for up to 3 million Hong Kong citizens with British national overseas (BNO)passports.

“We deplore the decision,” said Charles Michel, the EU Council president, while Yoshihide Suga, Japan’s chief cabinet secretary, called the move “regrettable.”

Tsai Ing-wen, the Taiwanese president, said that “China's disregard for the will of Hong Kong’s people proves that “one country, two systems” is not viable.”

Taiwan, which has now issued a warning about the increased risk of travelling to Hong Kong, will open an office on Wednesday to help the city’s fleeing citizens.

Hong Kong’s plight should set off alarm bells for everyone, said Mr Lai.

“If we allow China, which is definitely going to become the biggest economy in the world, to impose its values and belligerent behaviour, the world will not have peace,” he said.

Additional reporting: Jasmine Leung, Wendy Tang