Beijing has reportedly 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, criminalising secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces. Several Hong Kong media organisations, citing unnamed sources, reported the law was passed unanimously by the committee.
The law, 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.
In the decades since, 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 in mainland China, 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.
Beijing has accused the US and other foreign “black hands” of inciting the demonstrations as a way to destabilise China. 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 in retaliation for the looming national security law. 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”.
Legal scholars and critical residents say the law effectively destroys one country, two systems, a firewall between Hong Kong and China, meant to preserve the city’s “high degree of autonomy” for 50 years after the handover. Beijing has 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.
Jerome Cohen, an expert in Chinese law at New York University has called such language “eye candy”. “The very provisions in the draft national security law would appear to violate the protections offered by Hong Kong law and the ICCPR (International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights),” he said referring to the key international human rights treaty to which Hong Kong is a signatory.
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, to be enacted immediately, was not made public before its passage on Tuesday.
Officials have promised the law will only target a “narrow set” of behaviours but rights advocates and observers believe it will be used broadly to stifle dissent.
“An axiom of criminal law in systems that respect rights is that offences should be precisely drawn. When not, they are open to the discretion and abuse of those who will bring the charges. They have been used precisely this way in China,” said Martin S Flaherty, a visiting law professor at Princeton University who has specialised in China human rights.
He said the special detention centres for suspects in national security cases could “become fora for torture, abusive interrogation, and coerced confessions.”
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.
Still, experts believe the measure is likely to solidify resistance in Hong Kong over the long term, raising the possibility of yet more instability.