Could Hong Kong's security law accelerate the global splinternet?

What's the global impact of western tech firms operating in HK announcing suspension of police cooperation there.

Hong Kong is a Special Administrative Region (SAR) of just 7.5 million people. Yet the world is already waking up to the global implications of a new National Security Law (NSL) foisted on the former British colony by Beijing. According to the text, the legislation makes it illegal for anyone anywhere to advocate democratic reform for Hong Kong. This week, many non-Chinese tech companies announced they would be pausing co-operation with local police on censorship and data access requests. But this decision vacuum won't be able to last for long.

An uncomfortable choice awaits: refuse to play ball and risk being kicked out of the region, or comply and in so doing potentially encroach on the civil liberties of those living far from China's shores. It's a choice between accelerating the divide between China's internet and the rest of the world, or of effectively taking the Great Firewall global.

One country, one system

After months of pro-democracy protests, culminating in a Hong Kong government climbdown on a previous extradition bill, the Communist Party of China finally stepped in. Its Law of the People's Republic of China on Safeguarding National Security in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, to give it its full title, directly breaks the Joint Declaration signed by Britain and China in 1984. The declaration, a legally binding international treaty recognised by the UN, formed the basis of the "one country, two systems" framework designed to protect Hong Kongers from mainland tyranny. In so doing, it ensured locals benefitted from the right to freedom of expression, an independent judiciary and the rule of law — all factors which helped to ensure Hong Kong's continued success as a global financial and tech hub.

The new NSL unilaterally dismantles such freedoms. It gives the Chinese authorities the power to punish vaguely worded acts of "terrorist activities," "secession," "subversion" and "collusion with a foreign country" with life imprisonment or even death. It will be enforced by a National Security Committee, headed by Hong Kong's CEO, with no input from the judiciary. Most controversially, it applies extra-territorially, meaning that if anyone anywhere in the world says or does anything that may invite accusations of the above crimes, they could be arrested if they set foot in Hong Kong or China.

As George Washington University law professor, Donald Clarke, observed, this part of the law is intended to "put the fear of God into all China critics the world over."

"Whether one looks at the text or considers the likely practical application of the text, the best advice to critics of the Party-state is to stay out of Hong Kong," he argued last week.

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