Published: 01:44, February 16, 2024 | Updated: 01:46, February 16, 2024
Article 23 legislation the last step toward enduring political stability
By Henry Ho

On Jan 30, the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region government launched a public consultation on the proposed legislation of Article 23 of the Basic Law, two decades after a failed attempt in 2003. 

Hong Kong’s chaotic political situation started in 2003 after the first attempt to complete Article 23 legislation failed that year, and lasted for nearly two decades till promulgation of the National Security Law for Hong Kong in June 2020. With the anticipated passage of the Article 23 legislation this year, political chaos will certainly come to an end, paving the way for Hong Kong to stride forward in socioeconomic development.

One of the controversies surrounding the legislative proposal concerns the introduction of the offense of “external interference”, targeting acts influencing the Central People’s Government or the executive authorities of Hong Kong, interfering in the elections of Hong Kong, influencing the Legislative Council or a court during the discharge of its functions, and prejudicing the relationship between the central authorities and Hong Kong. 

It is believed that the new offense will serve to provide further protection for national security in Hong Kong, in addition to Article 29 of the National Security Law for Hong Kong (NSL), which highlights collusion with a foreign country or external elements to endanger national security.  

To implement the Article 23 requirements prohibiting foreign political organizations from conducting political activities and prohibiting local political organizations from establishing ties with foreign counterparts, the proposed improvement in the scope of applicable organizations under the existing Societies Ordinance covering “company, co-operative society, incorporated management committee, corporation” will provide comprehensive coverage and equal treatment for all kinds of organizations in Hong Kong with respect to suppressing acts endangering national security. 

It will plug the existing loophole for activists to resort to establishing other forms of organizations to engage in activities that endanger national security. 

The proposed arrangement will not undermine the rights and freedoms Hong Kong residents enjoy under the Basic Law and the provisions of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights as applied in Hong Kong. Importantly, the proposed Article 23 legislation and the NSL solely target an extremely small minority of people who deliberately commit acts endangering national security. Based on the Hong Kong Police Force’s statistics, the force had arrested only about 260 people as of July, of which 161 people have been charged and 79 have been convicted for breaching the NSL.

Hong Kong is an international metropolis and a global financial hub, and the HKSAR government knows that it is of the utmost significance for the city to have close exchanges with international organizations. 

The international organizations and groups’ right to express dissenting opinions on Hong Kong’s policies are also respected. 

The consultation document for the Article 23 legislation clearly states that there are legitimate needs for international institutions “to express their rational views on the policies and measures of the HKSAR government”, including lobbying through local groups, therefore the government does not “recommend adopting an across-the-board approach to impose blanket prohibition on the above exchanges”.

It is crucial for the government officials and relevant parties to clearly explain the rationale for and details of proposed offenses in Article 23 legislation to the international community. 

It is apparent that the government respects the opinions of international and financial organizations on how to boost Hong Kong’s development and has supported them to set up offices and establishing operations in Hong Kong. 

Last month, thousands of financial officials, central banks’ representatives, top executives from international financial organizations and business leaders from over 40 countries visited Hong Kong to share their visions on global economic cooperation at the Asian Financial Forum, while top executives from global investment banks, securities firms, asset management companies and venture capital funds also traveled to Hong Kong to join the Global Financial Leaders’ Investment Summit in November. Evidently, Hong Kong’s exchanges with global financial and international organizations will remain unchanged, which is essential for Hong Kong to serve its role as a leading magnet for global finance and trade and as an open cosmopolitan city. 

Meanwhile, the government needs to come up with practical measures to enhance enforcement mechanisms for safeguarding national security. 

In the consultation document, the government has highlighted that more initiatives will be proposed to allow sufficient time for law enforcement agencies to investigate complicated cases, prevent defendants from absconding and improve procedural matters to bring national security cases to court trials expeditiously and that are consistent with the interests of justice. 

There are widespread concerns at the fact that some alleged lawbreakers, including Agnes Chow Ting, who fled to Canada while out on bail, were able to abscond and evade their legal responsibilities. 

The government is to be applauded for considering measures to deter and prevent suspects from absconding, citing legal or administrative measures adopted in foreign countries such as revoking the passports of fugitives. It is also reasonable for the government to improve legal procedures so that national security cases can be scheduled for hearings in local courts as soon as possible. Such arrangements are also fair to defendants who would be subject to trial within a reasonable period of time.

Many Western countries, including the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia, have enacted comprehensive laws and taken necessary measures to protect national security. On the number of national security-related legislation, the US and the UK have at least 21 and 14 laws respectively, whereas Canada has more than nine and Australia has four. 

Last year, the UK enacted the National Security Act 2023 to introduce an array of new offenses with very wide coverage, including reform of laws relating to espionage and offenses relating to disclosing protected information and assisting foreign intelligence services. For certain malicious acts such as treason in some Western countries, the penalty is also harsh, with life imprisonment in the UK, Australia and Canada, whereas the penalty for treason in the US could be death. While every place has laws and duties to safeguard national security, Hong Kong should not be an exception. The proposed Article 23 legislation will complement the NSL and form an effective legal regime for safeguarding China’s national security and the SAR’s stability.

The implementation of Article 23 legislation has been long overdue, and we are pleased that the HKSAR government has initiated the long-delayed legislative process for Article 23 to fulfill its constitutional responsibility. 

Hong Kong has transitioned from chaos to governance, and is now at a momentous phase moving from governance to prosperity. The proposed Article 23 legislation will cement Hong Kong’s national security mechanism, thereby fostering the city’s stability, prosperity and ensuring all Hong Kong people of a promising future.

The author is a member of the Beijing Municipal Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, and founder and chairman of the One Country Two Systems Youth Forum.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.