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Hong Kong's new national security law might further erode civil liberties, some worry

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Lawmakers in Hong Kong have passed a controversial new national security law. The government casts it as a bid to make the territory safer and more stable, but some think it will further erode civil liberties and dent Hong Kong's standing as a global financial hub. NPR's John Ruwitch reports from Beijing.

JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: When Britain handed Hong Kong back to China in 1997, Article No. 23 of the territory's Basic Law - its new mini-constitution - required that it create legislation to protect national security. The city's first chief executive tried in 2003.

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UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Shouting in non-English language).

RUWITCH: But half a million people took to the streets to protest, and the legislation was shelved for a later day. That day came on Tuesday, when the Legislative Council passed the Safeguarding National Security Bill. Here's the territory's security chief, Chris Tang, speaking through an interpreter on the city's public broadcasting service, Radio Television Hong Kong.

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CHRIS TANG: (Through interpreter) The SAR government fully appreciate the wish of the public to safeguard national security. At the same time, they are concerned if the legislation may affect their rights and freedoms. The bill has catered fully to the concerns of the public.

RUWITCH: The bill advanced with lightning speed, and it comes atop an existing national security law that Beijing imposed on Hong Kong nearly four years ago after widespread anti-government protests. Critics say that law has been used to silence activists and extinguish Hong Kong's once-vibrant pro-democracy movement. Article 23 passed unanimously and with no protests this time around. The new law hands the authorities greater powers to mete out punishment for national security crimes, among them sedition, espionage, treason, theft of state secrets and insurrection. The law passes at a time when the Hong Kong government is keen to demonstrate that the city is still a vibrant and safe global financial center. But Ho-fung Hung, a professor at Johns Hopkins University, thinks the new legislation may, in fact, have a chilling effect, particularly when it comes to the vaguely defined nature of state secrets in the law.

HO-FUNG HUNG: So a lot of foreign financial firms and executives in mainland China already worry that it has a chill. Right now we have the article. Then if we are saying Hong Kong is no longer a safe haven, if they find it worrying in mainland China, they will need to worry about the same thing in Hong Kong now.

RUWITCH: The new law goes into effect on Saturday. John Ruwitch, NPR News, Beijing.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

John Ruwitch is a correspondent with NPR's international desk. He covers Chinese affairs.