Residents of the semi-autonomous city need only look across the mainland border in China to get a glimpse of how “national security” – broadly and vaguely defined – can be used as a practical pretext for political prosecution of dissidents, activists, lawyers and journalists for human rights.
For example, Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo was sentenced to 11 years in prison for “instigating oppression of state power.” Prior to his arrest, Liu helped prepare a manifesto calling for democracy and political reform in China. Liu died of multiple organ failure in 2017 after being diagnosed with liver cancer, making him the first Nobel Peace Prize winner who died in state custody since Carl von Ossietzky, who was imprisoned by Nazi Germany.
China adopted its first national security law in 1
993 that focused on issues related to spy activities. That law was replaced by the Counterespionage Act 2014 with updated rules that targeted foreign spies more closely – as well as Chinese individuals and organizations cooperating with them.
In 2015, China adopted a comprehensive new national security law covering a much wider range of areas, including, but not limited to, defense, politics, economy, environment, technology, cyberspace, outer space, culture, ideology and religion.
The new law is part of a broader push by Chinese President Xi Jinping to strengthen national security. One year after he came to work, Xi set up a powerful national security commission – which he heads himself – to lead the effort and increase coordination between the various wings of the country’s security bureaucracy.
But long before the new National Security Act came into force, the Chinese government had thrown dissidents, activists, human rights lawyers and journalists in jail for national security crimes – a trend that has only intensified during Xi’s crushing crackdown on activism and dissent.
Imprisoned on national security grounds
In 2014, Uyghur economist Ilham Tohti was sentenced to life imprisonment for “separatism.” Prior to his imprisonment, Tohti was known for his research on Uyghur-Han relations and has been a vocal critic of the government’s ethnic politics in Xinjiang, a resource-rich region long inhabited by the Uighur minority.
In 2015, veteran journalist Gao Yu received a seven-year prison sentence for “illegally providing state secrets to foreign entities.” She was accused of revealing an internal party document in 2013 to an overseas Chinese-language news organization.
Known as “Document # 9”, the Chinese Communist Party’s ideological battle plan revealed anti-constitutional democracy advocates and banned public discussions on issues ranging from freedom of the press, civil rights to judicial independence.
In November 2015, Gao’s term of office was reduced to five years and served his sentence out of prison for medical reasons. She also served more than five years in prison in the 1990s on similar charges.
More recently, China sentenced Wang Yi, a prominent pastor of one of China’s largest house churches, to nine years in prison in late December. He was convicted of “instigating oppression of state power.”
National security violations of subversion and instigating subversion were also used by the Chinese government to imprison human rights advocates and activists arrested in July 2015 – a nationwide compilation later became known as the infamous “709 crackdown.”
In the summer of 2016, attorney Zhou Shifeng was sentenced to seven years in prison for “undermining state power,” and Democrat attorney Hu Shigen was jailed for seven and a half years for the same crime.
In 2017, lawyer Jiang Tianyong was sentenced to two years in prison for “employing oppression of state power,” and human rights activist Wu Gan received an eight-year prison sentence for “undermining state power.”
In 2019, prominent rights lawyer Wang Quanzhang was sentenced to four and a half years in prison for “teaching state power”, after disappearing in prison for more than three and a half years.
Chinese nationals outside the mainland have also been jailed for national security offenses. Taiwanese pro-democracy activist Lee Ming-che, for example, was sentenced in 2017 to five years in prison for “undermining state power.”
China has also arrested two Canadian citizens for what it says are suspected state-secret crimes, shortly after Canada arrested an executive of Chinese technology giant Huawei on behalf of the United States. Former diplomat Michael Kovrig was accused of “collecting state secrets and intelligence for foreigners (forces)”, and businessman Michael Spavor was accused of “stealing and illegally providing state secrets for foreigners (forces).” Both have been in custody in China since December 2018.