China’s top legislature on Thursday approved a resolution for a national security law tailor-made for a troubled Hong Kong, defining in its final version a firm role for the city’s leader to educate residents on sovereignty and drawing a line against independence advocacy.
Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor herself issued an open letter to the people of Hong Kong the same evening, urging understanding and acceptance of the reasons behind the legislation as she warned that the city had been “traumatised” by a year of violent protests, leaving it as a “gaping hole” in the country’s national security.
Beijing’s foreign affairs ministry office in Hong Kong blasts ‘gangster logic’ of US sanctions threat, saying it proves need for security law
“Regrettably, the current legal system and enforcement mechanisms for Hong Kong to safeguard national security are inadequate or even ‘defenceless’,” she said in full-page advertisements to appear the next day in local newspapers.
The National People’s Congress’ (NPC) vote on Thursday afternoon came just hours after Beijing-Washington tensions increased as US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared to Congress that Hong Kong was no longer suitably autonomous from mainland Chinese rule, a first step towards potentially downgrading its preferential trading status.
Pompeo’s statement sent shock waves through Hong Kong’s political circles and triggered a blame game among political rivals over which side had precipitated the latest turn of events that would hurt the city itself.
Opposition leaders attacked the NPC for pressing ahead with the legislation, saying the pro-Beijing camp had failed to persuade the central government to respect the “one country, two systems” principle, under which the city was promised a high degree of autonomy.
But pro-establishment politicians welcomed the new security law and slammed the pro-democracy camp for inviting US interference, accusing them of aiding and abetting Washington’s desire to contain China’s development.
In a statement issued late on Thursday night, a spokesman for the Hong Kong government hit back at Pompeo’s remarks, warning that sanctions were “a double-edged sword that will not only harm the interests of Hong Kong but also significantly those of the US”.
The spokesman said the city’s “separate customs territory” status is enshrined in the Basic Law.
“We shall continue to pursue the policy of free trade. As a separate member of the World Trade Organisation, we expect to be fairly treated by our trading partners,” he said.
He noted that the US’ trade surplus with Hong Kong was the biggest among its trading partners over the past decade, but it had seen a decrease last year due to the US-China trade war.
“Should any sanctions be contemplated in other areas like services and investment, the interests of the 1 300 US corporations based in Hong Kong might further be affected,” he said.
Hong Kong protests: more than 360 arrested as thousands take to streets to oppose new laws concerning Chinese sovereignty
In an earlier statement, a spokesman for Beijing’s top diplomat in Hong Kong said it was “utterly imperious” and “unreasonable and shameless” of Washington to use the threat of sanctions to obstruct the introduction of the national security law.
“By openly interfering in Hong Kong affairs, which are purely China’s internal affairs, and trampling international law and basic norms governing international relations, they have laid bare their double standards and gangster logic,” a spokesman for the Chinese foreign ministry’s Hong Kong office said.
The State Council’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office said the NPC’s approval would pave the way for “firmer foundations of one country, two systems, and a brighter future for Hong Kong”.
A spokesman for Beijing’s liaison office in Hong Kong said: “No country would tolerate activities that threaten its national security. Hong Kong cannot continue to be defenceless when it comes to national security.”
The city is obliged under its mini-constitution, the Basic Law, to enact its own national security legislation, but 23 years after Hong Kong’s handover of sovereignty to China, Beijing has taken matters into its own hands, specifically in light of last year’s chaotic social unrest.
While local and foreign critics have cast the new law as a serious violation of “one country, two systems”, three top Beijing officials – Premier Li Keqiang, NPC chairman Li Zhanshu and Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office chief Xia Baolong – made it clear it would be crucial to upholding the city’s governing formula and maintaining stability.
In her letter, Lam again sought to ease fears of the new law’s overreach, reiterating that it would be targeted at an “extremely small minority of illegal acts and criminal activities”. Lam also visited a street booth in North Point to sign a petition in support of the legislation as part of her government’s PR offensive to sell it to a nervous public.
The official Xinhua news agency reported on Thursday that the approved resolution specified in its preamble that the law was needed as “‘Hong Kong independence … and violent terrorist activities in the city had seriously threatened national sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity”.
Hong Kong national security law: US set to go it alone with hard line on China, as other countries back off
While the proposed resolution specifies that Hong Kong’s chief executive should initiate promotion and education programmes on the matter, the approved resolution specified that he or she should “launch national security education”.
Despite Pompeo’s condemnation, the US State Department’s certification may not necessarily lead to an immediate next step. US officials, including President Donald Trump, must now decide to what extent sanctions or other policy measures should be imposed on Hong Kong to punish Beijing.
Options available include higher tariffs, tougher investment rules, asset freezes and more onerous visa rules.
“It’s a one-two action,” David Stilwell, assistant secretary of the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs at the US State Department, said earlier.
“A lot of” options were being considered, including sanctions “as determined in the United States-Hong Kong Policy Act of 1992 and in the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act” of 2019, Stilwell said.
Under the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, which became law in November, Washington must decide every year whether governance of Hong Kong is suitably distinct from China, which is the prerequisite for granting the city trade privileges under the 1992 Hong Kong Policy Act.
Sources said Trump could issue an executive order on the sanctions as early as in a day or two.
Among Hong Kong’s business community, the information technology sector was worried about tit-for-tat actions between the two economic powers over the city’s autonomy, warning that any cancellations of preferential treatment would take a toll on local hi-tech development.
The city’s investors in IT and trade were drawing up “Plan B” for their investments after waking up on Thursday and learning of the bad overnight news from Washington.
Opposition lawmaker Tanya Chan, convenor of the pro-democracy camp, said the NPC’s approval was tantamount to announcing the death of “one country, two systems”.
“No matter how the pro-establishment camp and government claim that the law would make the city more prosperous, the fact is most foreign countries have expressed worries, and our city’s reputation has been undermined,” Chan said.
Civic Party leader Alvin Yeung Ngok-kiu poured scorn on the government’s public support campaign, with details of the new law still unknown.
Youth activist Joshua Wong Chi-fung of Demosisto urged European and Asian leaders as well as those on the United Nations Security Council to oppose Beijing’s move.
“If Beijing didn’t decide to impose the national security law in Hong Kong, to turn Hong Kong into a nightmare, we don’t believe Washington would suddenly announce imposing such arrangements,” he said.
In a joint statement, Pompeo and the foreign ministers of Britain, Australia and Canada said they were “extremely concerned” that the national security law would “exacerbate the existing deep divisions” in Hong Kong.
The four officials also hit out at Beijing for impeding trust among governments and international cooperation amid the coronavirus pandemic, calling on officials from Hong Kong and the central government to work with the public to find “mutually acceptable accommodation” that fulfils Beijing’s obligations as set out in the Sino-British Joint Declaration.
The national security law resolution, officially known as the “draft decision on establishing and improving the legal system and enforcement mechanisms for the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region to safeguard national security”, was approved with 2,878 deputies from around the country voting in favour and one voting against, while six abstained.
NPC chairman Li Zhanshu said after the vote that the national security legislation was “an important move in upholding and perfecting one country, two systems”.
After the meeting, Premier Li Keqiang was asked in a press conference whether Beijing was “abandoning Hong Kong’s governing principle” by imposing the national security law.
“The central government has all along fully and faithfully implemented one country, two systems, under which the people of Hong Kong govern Hong Kong with a high degree of autonomy,” he said.
“The decision adopted at the NPC session is designed for steady implementation of one country, two systems and Hong Kong’s long-term stability and prosperity.”
Li said the central government had acted in strict accordance with the Chinese constitution and the Basic Law, supporting Hong Kong’s leadership accordingly.
The city’s delegates to the NPC had a meeting with Xia Baolong, director of the State Council’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, on Thursday afternoon.
“Xia said the national security legislation would allow horses to run faster and dancing parties to get better,” said NPC deputy Brave Chan Yung, in a reference to late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping’s pre-handover promise that “horse racing will continue and dancing parties will go on” after 1997.
The proposed resolution was first revealed on Friday last week, proposing that the NPC Standing Committee would craft a law prohibiting acts of secession, subversion, terrorism or conspiring with foreign influences in Hong Kong.
The text was amended on Tuesday, expanding its scope to prohibit “activities” that would “seriously endanger national security”.
Under the law, the Hong Kong government will also be required to set up new institutions to safeguard sovereignty, while allowing mainland agencies to operate in the city as needed.
The National People’s Congress Standing Committee, which last met in late April, convenes every two months and is expected to hold its next meeting as early as June. That would be the earliest date at which the legislation could be advanced.
Additional reporting by Sum Lok-kei and Ng Kang-chung
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This article Two Sessions 2020: National People’s Congress approves resolution to impose security law on Hong Kong first appeared on South China Morning Post