Beijing has passed a sweeping national security law for Hong Kong that critics fear will crush political freedoms and pave the way for China to cement its control over the semi-autonomous territory.
Less than 40 days after Chinese lawmakers first proposed imposing an anti-sedition law on Hong Kong, the standing committee of the National People’s Congress, on Tuesday approved the measure, according to the DAB, Hong Kong’s largest pro-Beijing party.
“The national security law for Hong Kong was officially passed by the National People’s Congress Standing Committee today,” it said in a statement, welcoming the legislation.
Officials have not released the full text of the law criminalising secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces. At a regular press briefing on Tuesday, Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, would not comment on local media reports that it had passed, as widely expected.
“When the NPCSC [National People’s Congress standing committee] passes the law – I am not saying it will definitely pass this time,” she said, correcting herself and adding: “If the NPSC passes the law … we will do our best to respond to your questions, particularly on implementation.”
“It is not appropriate for me to comment on any questions related to the national security law,” she said.
The legislation, which has been condemned internationally, deals a devastating blow to Hong Kong’s autonomy as promised under the “one country, two systems” framework, the terms of the former British colony’s handover to Chinese control in 1997.
“The passing of the national security law is a painful moment for the people of Hong Kong and represents the greatest threat to human rights in the city’s recent history,” said Joshua Rosenzweig, the head of Amnesty International’s China Team.
“From now on, China will have the power to impose its own laws on any criminal suspect it chooses,” he said.
In the decades since the handover, Hong Kong’s free press, independent courts and legislature, as well as its traditions of protests and marches have made the city a haven for the civil liberties not enjoyed across the border, especially as the government under Xi Jinping has further cracked down on civil society.
Those differences were thrown into sharp relief last year as protests – over another controversial bill that residents saw as further Chinese encroachment on their city – turned into a broader democracy movement.
Authorities have been clear that the legislation is aimed at stopping those protests, which have created new diplomatic tensions and added to an increasingly hostile international environment for Beijing.
The UK has pledged to change immigration rules if the law goes through to offer Hong Kong residents eligible for a British National Overseas passport a “route to citizenship”. Taiwan has also promised to help those fleeing gain residency in Taiwan.
The US said on Monday it would stop exporting sensitive military items to Hong Kong, as it moved to revoke the city’s special trade status as separate from China. The US has also said it would limit visas for current and former Chinese officials believed “responsible for, or complicit in, undermining Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy”.
Lam said on Tuesday: “Any sanctions will not intimidate us. Our country will have counter measures.”
The law’s reported passage comes in time for an annual protest on Wednesday, the anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover to Beijing’s control. Police have banned the march, which has taken place every year since 1997, citing Covid concerns. Activists have said they would still demonstrate.
Beijing has previously defended the measure by calling other countries hypocritical when criticising China for moving to defend its own national security.
While broadly condemned in mainland China where state media routinely describe the protesters as violent “rioters” and “terrorists,” a minority of Chinese activists and residents have been punished for supporting the protests in Hong Kong.
According to detail released previously, the law will see Beijing set up a national security agency in Hong Kong to “guide” the territory’s implementation of the law. It will also have jurisdiction over cases in “certain circumstances”. Should discrepancies arise, the security legislation will override Hong Kong law. The law promises to protect the civic rights of Hong Kong residents but critics say such language means little given how similar laws are used in mainland China.
Legal scholars also take issue with how the law was passed – through a legal manoeuvre that bypasses the Hong Kong’s own legislature and the possibility of public dissent stopping the bill. A previous attempt to pass a national security law, by pro-Beijing lawmakers and the government, caused mass protests and was shelved. A full draft of the law was not made public before its passage on Tuesday.
“A national security law was imposed on Hong Kong through a process nobody in Hong Kong had any control over, with content nobody in Hong Kong was privy to. That should put an end to the nation that Hong Kong remains autonomous in any meaningful way,” said Alvin Cheung, a legal scholar focusing on Hong Kong issues at New York University’s US-Asia Law Institute.
Officials have promised the law will target only a “narrow set” of behaviours but rights advocates and observers believe it will be used broadly to stifle dissent. Prominent activists believe they are likely to be arrested within days after the law’s enactment. In the past year, police have arrested more than 9,000 protesters, including pro-democracy lawmakers and activists who have frequently lobbied to bring international attention to Hong Kong’s cause.
Experts believe the measure is likely to solidify resistance in Hong Kong over the long term, raising the possibility of yet more instability.
“From now on Hong Kong enters a new ear of reign of terror,” activist Joshua Wong wrote on Twitter. “However, even under … China’s direct authoritarian rule Hong Kongers will continue to fight… When justice fails, our fight goes on.”
On Lihkg.com, a site popular with protesters, users called for people to come out to “celebrate” the passage of the law. “July 1st, let’s go to the streets to celebrate,” one said. Referring to the park where the annual demonstration takes place, another said: “See you in Victoria Park on July 1.”