A national security law for Hong Kong was passed on Tuesday by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress in Beijing, amid international criticism and fear among pro-democracy figures in the former British colony.
The law prohibits acts of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces.
The full text of the legislation has not yet been released, and even Hong Kong’s top official, Chief Executive Carrie Lam, acknowledged in a press conference shortly after the passage that she had not seen a full draft. Local media reports that the law is expected to come into effect on July 1, the 23rd anniversary of the resumption of Chinese sovereignty over the territory.
Beijing announced plans at the end of May to bypass Hong Kong’s lawmaking process and implement the laws for the enclave after Hong Kong failed to fulfill its constitutional obligation to do so.
Alan Leong, the chairman of the pro-democracy Civic Party and the former chairman of the Hong Kong Bar Association told TIME that it was “totally unacceptable” that the law was passed without its details being known to Hong Kong officials. He said that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) may be signaling to Hong Kong officials that “They are just here to execute instructions given to them by the CCP.”
Many experts say that Beijing ran out of patience following violent anti-government protests that paralyzed the city for much of the second half of 2019, and plunged the global financial hub into its first recession in a decade. Under the One Country, Two Systems principle, agreed when the United Kingdom retroceded the colony to China, the city of 7.5 million has its own legislature and system of laws and courts. Article 23 of Hong Kong’s Basic Law, the mini-constitution governing the territory, required the Hong Kong government to enact national security laws itself, but local lawmakers could not agree on them.
“The rapid rise of unprecedented violence and calls for independence coupled with a dysfunctional [legislative council] left Beijing government with no alternatives but to enact a law with the hope of preventing the worse from happening,” Ronny Tong, a member of the Executive Council, Hong Kong’s de facto cabinet, tells TIME. “We can only hope that a proper balance will be struck between protecting national safety and integrity on the one hand and preserving the freedoms and core values of the people of Hong Kong on the other.”
The Chinese government says that matters of national security are the responsibility of Beijing, and that Hong Kong, like jurisdictions across the world, should have a national security law in place.
The Chinese foreign ministry said in June that the Hong Kong protests, which have seen thousands injured and arrested and caused millions of dollars worth of damage, made the national security legislation a matter of “the greatest urgency.”
“Some separatists even made a public appeal for foreign sanctions against China and invited the U.S. military to Hong Kong,” the statement said. “Forceful measures are therefore required to prevent, forestall and punish these acts,” the statement said.
Some experts say the law was rushed through to avoid further mass unrest. “[Chinese authorities] were afraid of the popular reaction,” Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a professor of political science at Hong Kong Baptist University (HKBU), told TIME. “They want to make sure it’s going to be promulgated as soon as possible before people get organized and start protesting against it.”
How have the U.S. and other governments responded?
Beijing’s increasing hold over Hong Kong has been a point of contention between the U.S. and China. Following the Communist Party’s decision to roll out national security laws for the territory, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that Hong Kong was no longer sufficiently autonomous from mainland China, a decision that puts the city’s special trade and economic relationship with the U.S. at risk. The Senate approved legislation June 25 to require sanctions against entities deemed to violate the promises China made to Hong Kong at the time of its 1997 handover—and against foreign financial firms that knowingly conducts “significant transactions” with those entities.
On June 26, Pompeo announced that the State Department would impose visa restrictions on Chinese Communist Party officials that it believes are undermining Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy, and restricting its human rights.
And on Monday, the U.S. announced that it will stop exporting U.S. defense equipment to Hong Kong. “We cannot risk these items falling into the hands of the People’s Liberation Army, whose primary purpose is to uphold the dictatorship of the CCP by any means necessary,” Pompeo said in a statement.
The European Parliament has meanwhile passed a non-binding resolution urging European Union member states to adopt “sanctions and asset freezes against Chinese officials responsible for devising and implementing policies that violate human rights.” It also recommended that the EU and its member states file a case before the International Court of Justice once the national security law was passed.
On June 26, about 50 United Nations rights experts denounced the repression of “fundamental freedoms” in China, highlighting the “repression of protests and democracy advocacy” in Hong Kong. The experts urged the Chinese government to withdraw the legislation.
The U.K. has said that if the law is implemented, it will amend immigration laws to make it easier for some Hongkongers to live in the country. Taiwan also said it will help Hongkongers who want to move to the island.
In response to the international criticism, Chinese officials have urged the U.S. and other governments to stop meddling in Hong Kong affairs. In retaliation for visa restrictions announced by the U.S., Beijing said on Monday it will impose visa restrictions on some Americans with “egregious conduct relating to Hong Kong.”
How have Hong Kong protesters responded?
The introduction of the national security legislation has sparked fresh unrest in Hong Kong, albeit on a reduced scale. More than 50 people protesting against the law were arrested on Sunday. Despite a police ban on the annual July 1 protest march, some activists are planning to demonstrate anyway.
Experts expect that the national security law might further dissuade moderate protesters, many of whom began to shy away from attending demonstrations late last year as the protests became increasingly violent.
“Some people might be afraid,” Willy Lam, an expert in Chinese politics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, tells TIME. “Protests against the law might be construed as subversion of state power.”
Ahead of the law’s passage, some protesters have deleted or wiped out content from social media accounts for fear that past posts might incriminate them.
HKBU’s Cabestan said demonstrators might be more cautious about what slogans they chant and signs they carry going forward—protesters have frequently waved American and other foreign flags and called on foreign governments to come to their aid, and calls for Hong Kong independence have become increasingly popular at protests in recent weeks
But, he says, the implementation of the law may exacerbate tensions between young Hong Kongers and the police, and lead to more confrontations. “There’s one thing the law cannot change, the mindset,” he said. “I think if anything the new law is going to consolidate the anti-China mindset among a lot of young Hongkongese.”
One young protester told TIME that the law won’t stop him from taking to the streets.
“Nothing can stop us, we have lost so much already,” said W., 20-year-old university student who asked to go by his initial for safety reasons. “We know it’s risky but there’s no turning back, the only thing we can do is resist until the end.”
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