New rules allow police to conduct warrant-less searches, intercept communications and stop people from leaving city.
Hong Kong’s leader Carrie Lam has said China’s new national security law does not spell “doom and gloom” for the city as her government used the legislation to grant police sweeping new powers, including the authority to intercept communications and conduct searches without a warrant.
Lam on Tuesday called the new law “mild” and said it would restore Hong Kong’s status as one of the safest cities in the world following last year’s massive pro-democracy protests that at times descended into violence.
“Surely this is not doom and gloom for Hong Kong,” Lam told reporters at her weekly press briefing. “I’m sure with the passage of time … confidence will grow in ‘one country, two systems’ and in Hong Kong’s future.”
Imposed last week, the national security law marks the most radical shift in how Hong Kong has been governed since 1997, when the United Kingdom returned the territory back to China under the “one country, two systems” formula – a model that assured the city autonomy and freedoms unknown on the mainland.
The legislation punishes what China describes broadly as secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces, with up to life in prison, and gives mainland security agencies an enforcement presence in Hong Kong for the first time.
Lam told reporters that cases involving the new mainland agency in Hong Kong will be “rare” and that national security was a “red line” that should not be crossed.
“The Hong Kong government will vigorously implement this law,” she added. “And I forewarn those radicals not to attempt to violate this law, or cross the red line, because the consequences of breaching this law are very serious.”
New police powers
Lam’s warning came hours after her government issued new details of the law, outlining measures the territory’s police can take to implement the legislation. The provisions remove much of the judicial oversight that previously governed police surveillance powers.
The new rules authorise officers to conduct searches for evidence without a warrant in “exceptional circumstances”. They also say police may apply for a warrant that requires a person suspected of violating the national security law to surrender their travel documents, thus restricting them from leaving Hong Kong.
Platforms and publishers, as well as internet service providers, may also be ordered to take down electronic messages published that are “likely to constitute an offence endangering national security or is likely to cause the occurrence of an offence endangering national security”.
Service providers who do not comply with such requests could face fines of up to 100,000 Hong Kong dollars ($12,903) and jail terms of six months. Individuals who post such messages may also be asked to remove the message, or face similar fines and a jail term of one year.
Legal experts in Hong Kong have criticised the new police powers, saying they are too broad and lack proper oversight.
“The new rules are scary, as they grant powers to the police force that are normally guarded by the judiciary,” barrister Anson Wong Yu-yat told the South China Morning Post.
“For example, in emergency and special circumstances police do not need a warrant under one rule, but it never explains what it means by special circumstances. They can also ask anyone to delete messages online only because it’s ‘likely’ to be violating the law.”
Before the release of the implementation rules on Monday, Facebook, WhatsApp and Telegram said they would deny law enforcement requests for user data in Hong Kong as they assess the effect of the national security law.
TikTok, the short-form video app owned by China-based ByteDance, also told Reuters news agency it planned to leave Hong Kong within days. The agency said the decision followed the enactment of the new security law.
Since the legislation came into effect, the government has specified that the popular protest slogan “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our time” has separatist connotations and is therefore criminalised.
In Hong Kong’s public libraries, books by pro-democracy figures have been pulled from the shelves, including those written by prominent activist Joshua Wong and politician Tanya Chan. The authority that runs the libraries said it is reviewing the books in light of the new legislation.
Many pro-democracy shops that publicly stood in solidarity with protesters have removed pro-democracy notes and artwork that adorned the walls of their stores, fearful that they might violate the new law.
Meanwhile, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in a statement late on Monday, lashed out at what he called China’s “Orwellian” moves to censor activists, schools and libraries in Hong Kong.
“The Chinese Communist Party’s destruction of free Hong Kong continues,” Pompeo said in the sharply worded statement.
“With the ink barely dry on the repressive National Security Law, local authorities – in an Orwellian move – have now established a central government national security office, started removing books critical of the CCP from library shelves, banned political slogans, and are now requiring schools to enforce censorship,” he said.
China has repeatedly condemned criticism from abroad, warning countries against interference in its internal affairs.
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