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An advertisement from the government promoting the new law in Hong Kong. Photo: Anthony Kwan/Getty Images

Hong Kong's government released the text of a new national security law imposed by Beijing just as the law came into force on Tuesday.

What it says: The law defines crimes such as terrorism and sedition broadly, but mandates harsh sentences — in many cases life imprisonment — for those found to have committed them. It will be enforced by a National Security Committee, headed by Hong Kong's chief executive, without any input from the judiciary.

Between the lines: The national security law manifests the Chinese Communist Party's approach to governance known as "rule by law," rather than "rule of law."

  • It includes sweeping definitions of crimes and penalties that gives the government broad power to limit people's political freedom, while explicitly denying any kind of independent oversight of the law or how it is carried out.

The big picture: The security law is the clearest encroachment to date on the autonomy that has allowed Hong Kong to flourish as a global financial hub, with political and legal protections unimaginable on the mainland.

  • Hong Kong's future is currently unclear, with the U.S. revoking special trading privileges on the grounds that the city is no longer autonomous from China, and everyone from activists to international corporations concerned about how the law will be implemented.
  • It was approved in response to last year's massive pro-democracy protests in the city, and appears designed in part to prevent further mass displays of dissent.

Zoom in: The law describes the bureaucratic and organizational outlines of the new security state.

  • It establishes a Hong Kong government national security committee, exempts decisions made by the committee from judicial overview, and mandates that the committee must have a Beijing-appointed advisor.
  • It prohibits "collusion" with foreign governments or institutions, which could potentially target those who have called on international bodies to condemn China or lobbied the U.S. Congress for sanctions.

More details:

  • Leading a terrorist organization carries a minimum sentence of 10 years and a maximum of life in prison, but it's unclear what sorts of organizations that designation will apply to.
  • There is concern in Hong Kong that the prohibition of "terrorist activity" will be applied broadly and arbitrarily. The law does get specific in some instances, with "destroying a vehicle" cited as possible terrorist activity.
  • The law requires Hong Kong to carry out "national security education" — a particularly controversial element given local resistance to propaganda in schools.
  • The law also requires Hong Kong's police to establish a national security division, and states that it may hire "specialists and technicians from outside the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region" — meaning mainland China.

What to watch: The law explicitly states that it applies beyond Hong Kong’s borders and to everyone, whether they are a Hong Kong resident or not. The legal implications of that are unclear but potentially could be extraordinarily contentious if applied as written.

Go deeper

Pompeo says U.S. ambassador to China is stepping down

Photo: Lintao Zhang/Getty Images

The U.S. ambassador to China, Terry Branstad, is stepping down, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced on Twitter Monday.

Why it matters: Branstad's three-year tenure was marked by a sharp escalation in tensions between the U.S. and China, exacerbated in the past year by the coronavirus pandemic, President Trump's trade war, Beijing's crackdown on Hong Kong, its abuses against Uighur Muslims, a military buildup in the South China Sea and more.

Republicans pledge to set aside differences and work with Biden

President Biden speaks to Sen. Mitch McConnell after being sworn in at the West Front of the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday. Photo: Erin Schaff-Pool/Getty Images

Several Republicans praised President Biden's calls for unity during his inaugural address on Wednesday and pledged to work together for the benefit of the American people.

Why it matters: The Democrats only have a slim majority in the Senate and Biden will likely need to work with the GOP to pass his legislative agenda.

The Biden protection plan

Joe Biden announces his first run for the presidency in June 1987. Photo: Howard L. Sachs/CNP/Getty Images

The Joe Biden who became the 46th president on Wednesday isn't the same blabbermouth who failed in 1988 and 2008.

Why it matters: Biden now heeds guidance about staying on task with speeches and no longer worries a gaffe or two will cost him an election. His staff also limits the places where he speaks freely and off the cuff. This Biden protective bubble will only tighten in the months ahead, aides tell Axios.