By Greg Torode and Venus Wu
HONG KONG (Reuters) - Amid calls from Hong Kong's pro-Beijing elite for sweeping new national security laws, government advisers and lawyers say the legislation is likely to be tougher than proposals shelved 14 years ago, raising fears about the city's cherished freedoms.
Those demanding urgency for the long-delayed Article 23 are using a fledgling independence movement in the former British colony as justification – even though the independence debate would have been allowed when Article 23 was first proposed in 2003.
Lawyers, diplomats and activists fear the new pressure could lead to legal "overkill" in an open city already struggling with increased interference from Beijing's Communist Party rulers.
"We can see an intolerance from the central authorities over any kind of independence discussion," said Simon Young, a professor at the University of Hong Kong law school.
"In this atmosphere, there is a concern that we could end up with something that criminalizes even the advocacy of independence, something that goes much further and is tougher than the previous proposals."
Kevin Yam, of Hong Kong's Progressive Lawyers Group, said it was vital to win the argument against independence by persuasion and debate, rather than a sweeping new law that curbs freedoms.
"If the government goes too far, it will undoubtedly have a chilling impact on Hong Kong," he said. "This is of great concern."
The government, in response to Reuters' questions, did not provide information on when or how it would kick-start legislation, but said it "will seek to create a favorable social environment for the community to handle this constitutional obligation ... in a positive manner."
Hong Kong, a free-wheeling global financial hub, has been ruled under a "one country, two systems" formula since Britain handed it back to China in 1997, guaranteeing freedoms not enjoyed on the mainland, including an independent judiciary and freedom of expression.
Those freedoms are outlined in the Basic Law, a mini-constitution that also demands the city pass its own law covering treason, secession and subversion against Beijing.
But many see Beijing increasingly involved in Hong Kong's affairs, such as the shadowy detention in 2015 of five Hong Kong booksellers who sold gossipy material critical of Beijing, and a legal interpretation from the Chinese parliament that eventually led to the disqualification of six democratically elected lawmakers. The calls to enact Article 23 follow that pattern, they say.
Previous government proposals outlawed incitement to violence but sought to protect political debate. Hundreds of thousands took to the streets to protest against Article 23 in 2003, forcing the government to shelve it. Months-long pro-democracy demonstrations in 2014 further heightened political sensitivities surrounding the legislation, and the government has not set a firm timetable to re-introduce it.
But now pressure is mounting on Hong Kong to push through the laws after mainland officials expressed concerns in both public and private meetings.
Senior Chinese parliamentarian Li Fei used a visit to Hong Kong last week to warn that Article 23 was a "duty that can't be shirked" while the chief of China's Liaison Office in the city also called for action.
"Many risks and potential hazards that would affect or even threaten national sovereignty, security and developmental interests have not been effectively eliminated or prevented," Liaison Office chief and Communist Party Central Committee member Wang Zhimin told pro-establishment lawmakers, according to his office's website.
Chinese President Xi Jinping took what some saw as a harder line on Hong Kong's future during his visit in July to mark the 20th anniversary of the handover from the British. Challenges and threats to China's sovereignty and power, or the use of Hong Kong as a base for infiltration and sabotage, were acts that crossed "the red line" and were "absolutely impermissible", Xi said.
Two members of Hong Kong's executive council - effectively the cabinet of leader Carrie Lam - have told Reuters that the 2003 bill would almost certainly have to be updated to reflect the fresh concerns.
The city's independence movement, which has largely gone underground after most of its young leaders were charged for their roles in various protests, did not exist in 2003.
Executive Council member Regina Ip - who pushed the previous bill as Hong Kong's then-security chief - said she could not say if the old proposals were sufficient in 2017.
"We must review any proposed legislation against the evolving security situation... that is only natural," she said.
Her colleague and moderate democrat Ronny Tong said he believed, realistically, any new laws could draw the line at organized efforts to promote independence.
"If the last version were to be passed, in fact it would not stop ... what is done by the students, because they are not advocating violence," he said.
"Hong Kong people are getting more and more intolerant of Beijing, and they (Chinese rulers) don't like that at all. Even short of independence, they feel that something needs to be done ... to try to make people more respectful to Beijing."
(Reporting by Greg Torode and Venus Wu; Editing by Nick Macfie)