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Made-in-China law keeps Hong Kong guessing whether it's guilty

Natalie Lung and Iain Marlow, Bloomberg News on

Published in News & Features

HONG KONG -- Chinese officials have described Hong Kong's new national security law as "tailor-made" for the former British colony. Lawyers in the city, however, say the statute may be open to abuse and difficult to apply.

The 35-page legislation drafted behind closed doors in Beijing represents an uneasy marriage between China's "socialist legal system with Chinese characteristics" and the common law preserved in Hong Kong after the British left in 1997. Key provisions against terrorism, secession, subversion of state power and collusion with foreign forces feature the harsh sentences -- as long as life in prison -- and sweeping wording of similar offenses on the mainland.

"It's deliberately vague," said Antony Dapiran, a lawyer and author with more than 20 years of experience working in Beijing and Hong Kong, where he currently lives. "That's the way that the Chinese legal system works. It leaves plenty of scope for interpretation, plenty of scope for the authorities to target whoever they want."

That will likely fuel uncertainty not only among Hong Kong's 7.5 million residents, but the some 1,300 foreign companies that have set up regional headquarters there in part due to its civil liberties and professional courts. The ambiguity may deter many people from behavior that they're not sure is illegal, an effect that Zhang Xiaoming, a top mainland official overseeing Hong Kong, referred to as a "sword of Damocles" when describing the law Wednesday.

Here are some key takeaways:



Although Chinese and Hong Kong officials have said an "extremely small" number of people would face arrest, the four major crimes sweep up a broad range of actions. Many appear to cover even nonviolent tactics employed by protesters and their supporters in a wave of unrest that gripped the city last year, such as slowing train traffic, waving pro-independence banners, vandalizing or besieging government buildings, or aiding people who take more radical action.

On Wednesday, Hong Kong police held flags warning protesters that chanting slogans like the common refrain, "Hong Kong independence, the only way out!" could now face criminal charges. A man accused of carrying a "Hong Kong Independence" banner was the first person arrested under the new law.

When pressed for details about who would be covered by particular crimes on Wednesday, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam said "whether an act has violated the law can't be explained through a simple discussion here." Her security secretary, John Lee, said the goal would be to educate residents so the city eventually sees "a zero number" of cases.



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