China plans to push through sweeping national security laws for Hong Kong at its annual meeting of parliament, in a move that critics say will effectively end the territory’s autonomy.
Beijing has been making it clear it wants new security legislation passed since huge pro-democracy protests last year plunged Hong Kong into its deepest turmoil since it returned to Chinese rule in 1997.
“National security is the bedrock underpinning the stability of the country,” said Zhang Yesui, spokesman for the National People’s Congress (NPC), the annual meeting of parliament that kicks off its full session on Friday.
Zhang announced that delegates at the NPC – a largely rubber-stamping exercise – would “establish and improve a legal framework and mechanism for safeguarding national security” in Hong Kong.
Condemnation of the proposal was swift, amid fears it could erase the “one country, two systems” framework that is supposed to grant the territory a high degree of autonomy.
“This is the end of Hong Kong,” said the pro-democracy Honk Kong legislator Dennis Kwok. “Beijing, the Central People’s Government, has completely breached its promise to the Hong Kong people ... They are completely walking back on their obligation.”
Article 23 of Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, the Basic Law, says the city must enact national security laws to prohibit “treason, secession, sedition [and] subversion” against the Chinese government.
But the clause has never been implemented due to deeply held public fears it would curtail Hong Kong’s cherished rights, such as freedom of expression. An attempt to enact article 23 in 2003 was shelved after half a million people took to the streets in protest.
By passing a law in the NPC, Chinese authorities will effectively bypass local opposition.
Zhang said details of the proposal would be announced at NPC proceedings on Friday. The resolution is likely to be passed by China’s parliament next week.
The US president Donald Trump, who has ratcheted up his anti-China rhetoric as he seeks re-election in November, told reporters at the White House that “nobody knows yet” the details of China’s plan. “If it happens we’ll address that issue very strongly,” Trump said, without elaborating.
China’s announcement came as anti-government protests that have overwhelmed Hong Kong since last June approach their one-year anniversary. In recent months the protests have been paused as a result of the coronavirus pandemic and much of the world has been distracted. In the meantime Beijing has appeared more determined to definitively quell the demonstrations.
Critics say the measure severely undermines Hong Kong’s legal framework, established under the terms of the former British colony’s handover to Chinese control in 1997. Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong, described it as a “comprehensive assault on the city’s autonomy”.
Under its Basic Law, Hong Kong is meant to enact security legislation on its own. “This spells the beginning of the end of Hong Kong under ‘one country, two systems’,” said Kenneth Chan, a political scientist at the Baptist University of Hong Kong.
“It would mean also communist-style political struggles have trumped the rule of law and a dagger that has stabbed into the heart of the city’s liberal foundations,” he said.
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“This is an expedient way to control Hong Kong,” said Johnny Lau, veteran China watcher and former journalist at the pro-China Wen Wei Po.
Legal observers and human rights advocates worry the law will be used to target critics of the central government. Over the last year, Hong Kong and Chinese authorities have often described demonstrators as terrorists.
“The obvious worry is that in China, we have seen ‘national security’, as well as related concepts like ‘counter-terrorism’, being used as an excuse for all sorts of human rights abuses, including the arbitrary arrest and imprisonment of dissidents, activists and human rights lawyers,” said Wilson Leung, a Hong Kong barrister who is part of the Progressive Lawyers Group.
According to legal experts, Chinese lawmakers may be able to enforce the law in Hong Kong through a provision, article 18, of the Basic Law that allows certain national laws in mainland China to be applied in Hong Kong, either through declaration or local legislation.
Martin Lee, the founder of the Democratic Party and a senior barrister who helped draft the Basic Law, said he insisted on the language in the document that “Hong Kong shall legislate on its own” national security laws.
“This is a blatant breach of their promise, they have reversed things completely,” he said. “This is the wrong procedure.”
He said the article 18 provision should apply to national laws only, not laws that specifically relate to Hong Kong. “If this precedent is set, then there is no need for [Hong Kong’s] legislative council,” he said.
Eric Cheung, the director of clinical legal education of the faculty of law at the University of Hong Kong, said: “The problem here is that if they want to do it, of course they can do it in any way they want to. The reality is that we are powerless.”
As China’s most important political event opens this week, after almost three months of delay, there are other signs of measures to stop the protests in Hong Kong. At the opening of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference on Thursday, Wang Yang, the head of the political advisory body, said the party supported strengthening the ability of its members in Hong Kong to “speak out, stop chaos, and reinstate order”.
Still, demonstrators, who have begun to take to the streets again, appeared more determined to pursue their demands.
“At this time last year, didn’t we believe that the extradition law was sure to pass? Hong Kongers have always created miracles,” Nathan Law, a pro-democracy activist, wrote on Facebook.
“People will continue to protest on streets,” tweeted Joshua Wong, an activist and former student leader during the 2014 protest movement. “Hong Kongers will not be scared off.”
Additional reporting by Lillian Yang