Hong Kong’s government is actively studying new legislation to plug “loopholes” in the existing national security law or even strengthen it, the city’s secretary chief has said, almost a year after the sweeping Beijing-imposed legislation came into force.

In an interview with Sing Tao published on Monday, Secretary for Security John Lee said Article 23 of the Basic Law must be implemented as soon as possible, even though security risks have been brought under control with the existing law.

John Lee. File photo: GovHK.

A special police unit has arrested 114 people and charged more than 50 of them since the Beijing-imposed legislation came into force last June 30. Last Thursday five executives of the city’s last print opposition newspaper Apple Daily were arrested and its bank accounts were frozen under the security law.

The paper says it will have to close unless the accounts are unfrozen.

Article 23 requires the Hong Kong government to “enact laws on its own to prohibit any act of treason, secession, sedition, subversion against the Central People’s Government, or theft of state secrets,” to prohibit political activities conducted by foreign organisations in the city, and to ban local political groups from forming ties with those overseas.

Lee was quoted as saying that Article 23 was mandated by the Basic Law, the city’s constitution, and the government’s study of the necessary legislation “has never stopped.”

At a press briefing on Tuesday, Chief Executive Carrie Lam said preparation work could still take place before her terms ends: “I don’t think we have the ability to complete the legislation of Article 23, but we will do the best that we can.”

Review of existing laws

“Does the Societies Ordinance need to be improved to deal with serious offences? On treason, the Crimes Ordinance currently has laws from before the handover, but do the laws need to be reinforced or amended? On leaking national secrets, is the current Official Secrets Act sufficient? These are what our legal research covers,” he told the newspaper.

Photo: GovHK.

The legislative work would be done under the common law framework, the security chief said. The government was looking at how the national security law has so far been implemented, the relevant court trials and upcoming rulings.

It was unclear when any new legislation would come forward. Secretary for Justice Teresa Cheng told the legislature on Monday she was not aware of any timetable for its implementation.

The Hong Kong government dropped an attempt to pass its own security law in 2003 amid widespread public opposition that culminated in a 500,000-strong demonstration on July 1 that year. Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa and security chief Regina Ip subsequently resigned.

The government has since been criticised by pro-Beijing figures for its failure to enact its own law, giving Beijing leeway to impose its version last summer.

Secretary for Justice Teresa Cheng. Photo: LegCo webcast screenshot.

Cheng was answering a question from pro-government lawmaker Junius Ho.

“Relevant work is ongoing, but any new implementation of Article 23 needs to be referred back to the Security Bureau,” Cheng said. “As a policy bureau it should be able to see when would be a suitable time.”

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Selina Cheng

Selina Cheng is a Hong Kong journalist who previously worked with HK01, Quartz and AFP Beijing. She also covered the Umbrella Movement for AP and reported for a newspaper in France. Selina has studied investigative reporting at the Columbia Journalism School.