Jul 7, 2020 - World

With new security law, China outlaws global activism

Illustration of hand crushing a speech bubble with “Freedom and democracy for Hong Kong”

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

The draconian security law that Beijing forced upon Hong Kong last week contains an article making it illegal for anyone in the world to promote democratic reform for Hong Kong.

Why it matters: China has long sought to crush organized dissent abroad through quiet threats and coercion. Now it has codified that practice into law — potentially forcing people and companies around the world to choose between speaking freely and ever stepping foot in Hong Kong again.

What's happening: Article 38 of the national security law states, "This Law shall apply to offences under this Law committed against the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region from outside the Region by a person who is not a permanent resident of the Region."

  • In other words, every provision of the law applies to everyone outside of Hong Kong — including you.

Several experts in Chinese and international law confirmed this interpretation of the law to Axios.

  • "It literally applies to every single person on the planet. This is how it reads," said Wang Minyao, a Chinese-American lawyer based in New York. "If I appear at a congressional committee in D.C. and say something critical, that literally would be a violation of this law."
  • This means that anyone advocating democracy in Hong Kong, or criticizing the governments in Hong Kong or Beijing, could potentially face consequences if they step foot in Hong Kong, or have assets or family members in Hong Kong.

What they're saying: "One of the main purposes of having the national security law is to quash the international front of the movement," said Nathan Law, a Hong Kong pro-democracy lawmaker, who spoke to Axios after he fled the city last week.

  • "For Hong Kong, we have to understand that it is the foreground of a very global fight, authoritarianism versus democracy."
  • He and other leaders of the pro-democracy movement, including Joshua Wong, have traveled the globe in recent years to promote their cause, including meeting with U.S. lawmakers — an activity that the new law prohibits.

The big picture: This marks a historically unprecedented expansion of extraterritoriality — the application of a country's domestic laws abroad.

  • U.S. counterterrorism laws have a degree of extraterritoriality, but those laws are intended to fight actual violent terrorism — not free speech — and are not used to crush peaceful political organizing.

The new law codifies and extends to non-Chinese nationals the extraterritorial practices that the Chinese Communist Party has long applied to its own citizens abroad.

  • Earlier this year a Chinese student at the University of Minnesota was sentenced to six months in prison after returning home to China for the summer, for a tweet criticizing Xi Jinping that he posted while in the U.S.
  • Chinese officials have also threatened people of Chinese heritage abroad who are no longer Chinese citizens, in some cases kidnapping them, taking them back to China, and forcing them to renounce their foreign citizenship so that Chinese authorities can prosecute them as Chinese nationals without foreign involvement.

Beijing is also increasingly using market access as a form of leverage to silence foreign companies and organizations.

  • Hollywood movie studios make sure their films don't offend China's censors so they can retain access to China's massive domestic movie market.
  • After Beijing complained, Marriott fired an employee who used a company social media account to like a post about Tibet.

Until now, this was informal coercion. Now it's the law.

  • An example: The tweet that Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey posted last year in the support of the Hong Kong protests got the NBA in a lot of trouble in China.
  • That tweet would likely be illegal under the new law.

What's at stake: The point of the law isn't necessarily to immediately launch a sweeping global dragnet, but rather "to put the fear of God into all China critics the world over," wrote Donald Clarke, a professor Chinese law at George Washington University, in an analysis of the law.

  • "It’s the obsession with seizing the narrative-setting power," said Alvin Cheung, a legal scholar at New York University.

What to watch: Hong Kong authorities may begin to detain or arrest people of any nationality upon entry to Hong Kong for their actions or speech elsewhere — or even issue extradition requests for major targets.

Go deeper: Listen to Bethany talk with Axios Today host Niala Boodhoo about how the new national security law reaches beyond China's borders.

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