HONG KONG, March 8 — The Hong Kong government today published its draft of a new national security law, a document being closely scrutinised by some foreign diplomats, lawyers and businesses amid fears it could further dent freedoms in the financial hub.

The draft, including new laws encompassing treason, espionage, external interference, state secrets and sedition, follows a month-long consultation that ended last week.

Lawyers analysing the draft said, at first glance, elements of the revised sentences for the offences are similar to Western ones but some provisions, such as those for sedition and state secrets, were broader and potentially tougher.

The bill includes sentences of up to life imprisonment for treason, 20 years for espionage and 10 years for offences linked to state secrets and sedition, but also takes note of Hong Kong’s freedom of expression and other rights.

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The city’s Legislative Council started debating the bill today amid tight security in the first of several sessions that could stretch over several weeks. Hong Kong leader John Lee urged lawmakers to pass the bill “at full speed”.

“The geopolitics have become increasingly complex, and national security risks remain imminent,” a government statement said.

Some investors said this desire to fast-track the bill was concerning. “The fact they are rushing through article 23 shows concern about public opposition. The business community is going to be unhappy unless there are guard rails protecting individual rights,” Andrew Collier, managing director at Hong Kong-based Orient Capital Research told Reuters.

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Concerns over freedoms

The debate starts as China’s top lawmakers in Beijing moved today to create a slew of new national security laws in order to safeguard the country’s sovereign interests.

Hong Kong has long been a business, academic and media hub for China and the region, but in recent years critics say pillars such as the rule of law and freedom of information have been undermined.

The European Union had said in an earlier statement that it had made clear in a diplomatic note its “grave concerns” over the far-reaching provisions in the Hong Kong bill on “external interference” and the law’s extra-territorial reach.

The bill proposed extending police detention for those arrested, without charge, for up to 14 days with a magistrate’s approval, on top of the 48 hours currently.

The sentences for sedition have been expanded from two to up to 10 years for offences in collusion with foreign forces.

The bill proposes a jail term of up to three years for possessing a seditious publication and police have the right to search any premise to seize and destroy such material.

In other offences, such as state secrets, limited public interest defences have been allowed.

“Human rights are to be respected and protected, the rights and freedoms, including the freedoms of speech, of the press and of publication, the freedoms of association... are to be protected” the bill reads.

In the draft, the definition of state secrets appears quite broad, some lawyers said, saying it includes military, security and diplomatic secrets as well as classified social, economic and technological information involving China and Hong Kong governments, and their relationship.

Hong Kong and Chinese officials have defended the bill against criticism from some Western governments and activists, saying that many Western nations have similar legislations, and that these laws are required to plug “loopholes” in the national security regime which was bolstered in 2020 by another national security law imposed directly by China.

Hong Kong and Chinese officials said the 2020 law was vital to restoring stability after sometimes violent pro-democracy protests a year earlier. — Reuters