What do China’s sweeping new national security powers allow?

Johnny Patterson

July 3, 2020


Imagine a young activist sat at home playing Animal Crossing. His name is Joshua.

There is a knock at the door in the middle of the night and Chinese security officials drag him out of his parents’ house and throw him into the back of an unmarked van. He’s driven to a local police station and accused of subversion, sedition and colluding with foreign political forces.

His crime is joining a march marking Hong Kong’s handover from the UK to China. The security officials demand that he confesses. He refuses and they torture him.

Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, is sat in her office with the justice secretary discussing Joshua’s case. She receives a phone call from Beijing. They are keen for her to move swiftly to sentence him.

Lam picks a local judge to oversee the hearing, who has a track record of offering lenient sentences to Triads who have assaulted pro-democracy protestors. The justice secretary argues that the case has “foreign-related factors” and should be held without a jury or press coverage. Lam agrees.

The activist’s case goes to trial. He swiftly receives a life sentence for the alleged offences as well as being barred from public office. A prominent activist group is named as a co-conspirator in the case, as their office in Hong Kong published a press release condemning his arrest and hosted a webinar to discuss efforts the international community could take to support him.

The group is convicted. They are issued with a financial sanction, their office is closed, their staff are arrested and they are banned from operating in Hong Kong.


James is a British student at the University of Leeds. He is active on Twitter and puts out a series of messages supporting the activist and criticising his arrest under the law. James is tried in absentia and receives a letter from the Chinese government informing him that he is banned from Hong Kong and China for life, risking imprisonment if he tries to enter.

Carrie Lam and the justice secretary are encouraged to review other offences the activist may have committed under the new national security law. The justice secretary, in conjunction with Beijing, agrees that statements he made prior to the law being in place are “subversive”.

Beijing requests that his case be classified as unique, allowing him to be extradited to the mainland to stand trial. Not one to refuse her masters, Carrie Lam quickly agrees.

All this, and more, is possible under China’s new national security law.

There are no guarantees that Beijing will use the legislation in this way, but the fact that it is possible is why it is so devastating for human rights and the rule of law. The chilling effect on free speech is already being felt.

A number of friends have told me they cannot contact me anymore. One said she was stepping back from her civil society role because her daughter was having nightmares about seeing her mother arrested.

The national security law marks a true watershed. The UK’s actions are a good step forward, but the government must now ensure that a proper strategy for the integration of BNOs is in place and that all other diplomatic avenues are explored so that our response is proportionate.


Written by Johnny Patterson

Johnny Patterson is director of Hong Kong Watch.


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