4th December 2023 – (Hong Kong) Given recent incidents like activist Agnes Chow fleeing while on bail, Hong Kong authorities should consider expanding the judicious use of exit bans against certain individuals facing charges under the National Security Law. This would align with global norms and parallel mainland practices upholding state sovereignty.

Chow’s ability to study abroad in Canada and then refuse to return for questioning as scheduled demonstrates the ease of evading prosecution by leaving Hong Kong. Her case follows other activists like Nathan Law openly fleeing overseas to escape charges. Allowing such flight from justice undercuts the National Security Law’s efficacy. It also broadcasts disregard for the legal process. Toughening exit restrictions on serious charges reasonably upholds rule of law and sovereignty.

Critics may decry the practice as authoritarian overreach but many developed countries like the U.K. and Canada already enforce forms of exit controls as needed, as do Asian metropolises like Singapore. Even the U.S. can temporarily revoke passports on national security grounds. Hong Kong hardly breaks new ground here.

One frequently cited precedent is mainland China’s use of exit bans against certain dissidents and activists. But this selectively targets specific national security threats rather than broadly restricting rights. Proper judicial oversight and appeals can prevent misuse. Within reason, the state has a duty to limit flight from serious alleged crimes.

Maintaining that duty is especially crucial given external forces agitating against Hong Kong’s stability. Allowing activists charged with collusion to easily escape abroad broadcasts impunity. It also shows how foreign meddling can still undermine domestic law.

Moreover, excessively lenient bail conditions and document return policies have enabled this flight risk. Granting Chow’s study abroad, then returning her passport, clearly proved misguided given the outcome.

Article 23 of the National Security Law enables police to restrict suspects under investigation for national security offences from exiting Hong Kong. This is accomplished by requiring the surrender of travel documents, and imposing de facto exit bans for at least 6 months. However, loopholes exist – the law permits document return and travel in cases of “unreasonable hardship”, a loose threshold. Additionally, some bail conditions are too lenient, allowing international study trips enabling flight, like the recent case. Tightening restrictions for serious charges by denying bail, continuing document holds and barring foreign travel could help. Oversight is still required to prevent excessive limits unfairly imposed. Overall, Article 23 establishes legal foundation for exit bans, but its efficacy is undermined by hardship exemptions and lax conditions. Carefully expanding bans while adding safeguards to prevent misuse could address this issue.

In essence, Article 23 does authorise exit restrictions as a tool for national security investigations. However, exceptions for “hardship” and bail leniency provide loopholes that can allow suspects to retrieve papers and flee, especially with loose hardship standards and international travel permitted. Toughening conditions is likely needed for serious charges, but with transparency and oversight to ensure fairness. The goal should be optimising security efforts while respecting rights. With nuance, the law can achieve this balance more effectively.

Going forward, stricter bail terms and continued document holds seem warranted for serious charges. Broader use of watch lists to prevent suspect flight is also prudent. Such focused measures target only specific threats, not general freedoms. Admittedly, implementation matters greatly but recent incidents prove that simply relying on good-faith return is insufficient for some. Accepting open flouting of law via expatriation cannot be the answer either.

With sound oversight and protections, modest exit restrictions can properly balance security and compassion. Cooperation from airlines and foreign governments will also help update practices for the public good.

Few argue those facing criminal charges should freely flee any stable jurisdiction. So why accept it for Hong Kong? Upholding justice demands reasonable steps to prevent such outcomes. The public expects and deserves no less from authorities sworn to protect their interests.