Pro-democracy activists fear “the end of Hong Kong” after China announced its new security law.
The United States has said the move could be “very unsettling” and undermine China’s obligations on Hong Kong’s autonomy.
The Chinese National People’s Congress will debate the law to ban sedition and subversion on Friday.
Supporters say there is a need to fight violence during the political protests that erupted last year. Opponents fear it will be used to suppress fundamental freedoms.
Why did this decision cause such fury?
Hong Kong has observed a “one country, two systems” policy and a “high degree of autonomy” since Britain surrendered sovereignty to China in 1997.
But activists and the pro-democracy movement believe that this is undermined by Beijing.
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Last year, millions of people took to the streets for seven months to protest a bill that would have allowed extraditions to mainland China. Many demonstrations have become violent. The bill was eventually suspended and then withdrawn.
The security law is even more controversial. According to the Basic Law, the mini-constitution of the territory, the Hong Kong government was itself supposed to have passed national security legislation. However, an attempt in 2003 failed after 500,000 people took to the streets in opposition.
This is why an attempt to now impose a national security law – which a lawmaker called Thursday “the most controversial [issue] in Hong Kong since the transfer “- caused such outrage.
BBC correspondent in China Robin Brant says that what makes the situation so inflammatory is that Beijing can simply bypass Hong Kong’s elected lawmakers and force the changes.
China can list them in Annex III to the Basic Law, which covers national laws that must then be implemented in Hong Kong – either by law or by decree.
Pro-democracy activists fear the law will be used to muzzle protests in defiance of the freedoms enshrined in the Basic Law, as similar laws in China are used to silence opposition to the Communist Party.
What did the opponents of China’s decision say?
A number of pro-democracy figures in Hong Kong, including the leader of the Democratic Party Wu Chi-wai, said the announcement was the death of “one country, two systems”.
Civic Party lawmaker Dennis Kwok said, “If this decision is made,” one country, two systems “will be officially wiped out. This is the end of Hong Kong. “
Her colleague Tanya Chan added that it was “the saddest day in Hong Kong history.”
Student activist and politician Joshua Wong tweeted that the move was an attempt by Beijing to “silence the critical voices of the Hong Kong people with force and fear.”
Meanwhile, the US State Department has said that “any effort to impose national security legislation that does not reflect the will of the people of Hong Kong would be very destabilizing and would be strongly condemned.”
President Donald Trump said the United States would react strongly if China followed through on his proposals, without giving details.
The United States is currently considering whether to extend Hong Kong’s preferential trade and investment privileges. He has to decide by the end of the month.
Hong Kong’s last British governor, Chris Patten, called the move “a full assault on the city’s autonomy.”
A spokesman for the British Foreign Office said the UK expected China to “respect the rights and freedoms of Hong Kong and its high degree of autonomy.”
What is China’s position?
Sources at the National People’s Congress (NPC) said that Beijing can no longer wait for Hong Kong to pass its own law, nor continue to watch the growth of what it sees as a violent anti-government movement.
A source told the South China Morning Post, “We can no longer allow acts like the desecration of national flags or the degrading of the national emblem in Hong Kong.”
Beijing may also fear the September elections to the Hong Kong Legislative Assembly. If last year’s success for pro-democracy parties in district elections is repeated, government bills could potentially be blocked.
Announcing the move on Thursday, spokesman Zhang Yesui said little, saying the measure “would improve” on one country, two systems.
Mr. Zhang said, “National security is the foundation of the stability of the country. Safeguarding national security serves the basic interests of all Chinese people, including our compatriots in Hong Kong. “
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After debating the issue, the AFN – usually a rubber stamp – will vote on next week. The question will not progress until June, when it will be referred to the Standing Committee.
An editorial in the state-run China Daily said the law meant that “those who challenge national security will necessarily be held accountable for their behavior.”
In Hong Kong, the pro-Beijing DAB party said it “fully supports” the proposals, which have been made “in response to the rapidly worsening political situation in Hong Kong in recent years.”
Pro-Beijing lawmaker Christopher Cheung told Reuters, “Legislation is necessary and the sooner the better. “
What is the legal situation in Hong Kong?
Hong Kong was ruled by Britain as a colony for over 150 years until 1997.
The British and Chinese governments signed a treaty – the joint Sino-British declaration – which agreed that Hong Kong would have “a high degree of autonomy, except in foreign and defense affairs”, for 50 years.
This was enshrined in the Basic Law, which will end in 2047.
As a result, Hong Kong’s legal system, borders and rights – including freedom of assembly and freedom of expression – are protected.
But Beijing has the right to veto any change in the political system and, for example, has ruled out the direct election of the chief executive.
Hong Kong experienced many political protests in 2019, but these became much smaller during the coronavirus epidemic.
However, there were chaotic scenes in the Hong Kong Legislative Chamber on Monday when a number of pro-democracy lawmakers were dragged in a row over a bill that would make the law illegal. – respect for the national anthem.
A group of 15 prominent pro-democracy activists also appeared in court on Monday, accused of organizing and participating in illegal assemblies linked to last year’s protests.