The Hong Kong government plans to amend a draft bill for the city’s new domestic security law to tighten measures against “absconders,” after lawmakers said the existing proposal was “too lenient.”

Secretary for Security Chris Tang speaks at a special, off-schedule meeting for the first and second reading of the Article 23 of the Basic Law on March 8, 2024.
Secretary for Security Chris Tang speaks at a special, off-schedule meeting for the first and second reading of the Article 23 of the Basic Law on March 8, 2024. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

Presently, the draft bill states that authorities could levy sanctions against an individual charged under the homegrown security law if they do not appear before a court in the six months after they have been issued an arrest warrant. The sanctions include cancelling their passports and prohibiting anybody from providing them with funding.

Addressing lawmakers at the Legislative Council on Tuesday, Secretary for Security Chris Tang said the government was considering scrapping the six-month window.

See also: Hong Kong proposes cancelling ‘absconders’ passports under new security law

“We aim to create measures that could effectively combat the act of absconding, and to facilitate absconders to return to Hong Kong,” Tang said in Cantonese.

Tang’s comment came after lawmakers – who are sitting in marathon meetings to fast-track the bill’s legislation – on Monday took aim at the proposed arrangement, saying it was “too lenient.”

Hong Kong passports. File photo: GovHK.
Hong Kong passports. File photo: GovHK.

Gary Chan, the chairperson of the city’s largest pro-Beijing party the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, said that authorities would be “tying their own hands” if they provided absconders with a six-month window before taking punitive measures against them.

The six-month window should be reduced or taken away so that the counter measures could be levelled as soon as possible, Chan said, adding that offenders who endangered national security were unlikely to return if they had left the city.

Peter Koon, an Anglican clergy and a chaplain of the St. John’s Cathedral, said: “As a priest, I think [the officials] are more merciful than me.”

In the draft for the Safeguarding National Security Bill – also known as Article 23 – the secretary for security could declare a person charged with national security offences as an absconder if they fail to comply with an arrest warrant for six months and the security chief “reasonably believes” they are not in Hong Kong.

The posters about the eight democrats wanted by the national security police on a notice board
Wanted posters for eight overseas Hong Kong activists on a notice board at Wah Fu Estate in Hong Kong, on July 27, 2023. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

The bill proposes banning residents from providing absconders with financial support, leasing them property, or establishing a joint venture with them. Offenders could face up to seven years in jail.

It also seeks to cancel absconders’ passports as well as suspending their professional qualifications and business registration in the city.

Officials previously said that the window was proposed to “give absconders a chance” to come back to Hong Kong and surrender.

‘Innocent residents’

Tang on Tuesday also said that authorities would consider tightening measures against absconders so that “innocent residents” would not be affected.

The security chief said that business owners and co-investors would not be suspected of breaching the law if their partners were declared absconders. They would only be targeted if they continued to do business or began a business with them, Tang said.

article 23 national security law draft
A draft of Hong Kong’s homegrown national security law. Photo: Hillary Leung/HKFP.

Similarly, landlords would not be suspected of breaching the domestic security law if their tenants fled overseas and were wanted by the authorities.

Article 23 of the Basic Law stipulates that the government shall enact laws on its own to prohibit acts of treason, secession, sedition and subversion against Beijing. Its legislation failed in 2003 following mass protests and it remained taboo until after the onset of the separate, Beijing-imposed security law in 2020. Pro-democracy advocates fear it could have a negative effect on civil liberties but the authorities say there is a constitutional duty to ratify it.

The bills committee will continue discussing the draft on Wednesday, marking the sixth straight day – including last Saturday and Sunday – of meetings. The draft will be brought to the general meeting, in which the city’s 89 lawmakers will discuss the bill, earliest on next Wednesday, local media reported.

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Hans Tse is a reporter at Hong Kong Free Press with an interest in local politics, academia, and media transformation. He was previously a social science researcher, with writing published in the Social Movement Studies and Social Transformation of Chinese Societies journals. He holds an M.Phil in communication from the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Before joining HKFP, He also worked as a freelance reporter for Initium between 2019 and 2021, where he covered the height - and aftermath - of the 2019 protests, as well as the sweeping national security law imposed by Beijing in 2020.