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US sanctions and UK condemnation of Hong Kong security law

Photograph: Protests in 2019 (Studio Incendo)

The United States has enacted a new set of Hong Kong-related sanctions on China and the United Kingdom has offered citizenship to the territory’s residents after Beijing passed a new highly criticised national security law.

The law, which includes 66 articles and harsh penalties, covers a wide range of alleged offences including on “secession” and “terrorism”. Other articles give Chinese mainland security operatives the right to investigate cases that are vaguely described as "complex", "serious" or “difficult”, as well as trials being held in secret, without a jury, and without guaranteeing bail.  

China’s mainland police force has also reportedly set up a police force establishing a dedicated national security division, and a ‘commission for safeguarding national security’ that will report directly to the central government. The Department of Justice will also set up a dedicated national security department specifically for prosecuting national security offences.

"The law is a brutal, sweeping crackdown against the people of Hong Kong, intended to destroy the freedoms they were promised," said US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, as both the House and the Senate unanimously passed the Hong Kong Autonomy Act, which imposes sanctions on banks that do business with Chinese officials. 

Meanwhile, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the law was a "clear and serious breach" of the 1985 Sino-British joint declaration, as he announced a route for up to 3 million Hong Kong residents to apply for British citizenship. "It violates Hong Kong's high degree of autonomy and threatens the freedoms and rights protected by the joint declaration," said Johnson. “We made clear that if China continued down this path we would introduce a new route for those with British National (Overseas) status to enter the UK, granting them limited leave to remain with the ability to live and work in the UK and thereafter to apply for citizenship. And that is precisely what we will do now.”

But at the United Nations Human Rights Council this week, Cuba and 52 other countries welcomed the law. "Non-interference in internal affairs of sovereign states is an essential principle enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations,” Cuba told the Council. "We believe every country has the right to safeguard its national security through legislation and commend relevant steps taken for this purpose."

The new laws come at a time when the special administrative region has been rife with protests and rioting triggered by an extradition bill that was proposed in April 2019, which demonstrators alleged would have eroded away at the autonomous legal system and the democratic rights of its citizens. Of particular concern was the ability of the mainland to extradite and prosecute political dissidents and with the most recent laws being pushed forward. 

As the law came into effect this week, several leading pro-democracy activists have stepped down from their roles with one reported to have fled the territory. Chinese authorities also announced that one of ten people arrested during protests on Wednesday, has been the first person to be charged under the law.

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