China approved a contentious national security law that will allow authorities to crack down on subversive and secessionist activity in Hong Kong, a move many see as Beijing's boldest yet to erase the legal firewall between the semi-autonomous territory and mainland China’s authoritarian Communist Party system.
Tam Yiu-Chung, Hong Kong’s sole representative on the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, confirmed to reporters Tuesday that the law had been passed. He said punishments would not include the death penalty, but did not elaborate on further details.
"We hope the law will serve as a deterrent to prevent people from stirring up trouble," Tam said. "Don’t let Hong Kong be used as a tool to split the country."
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Passage of the law came amid warnings and criticism both in Hong Kong and the international community that it will be used to curb opposition voices in the Asian financial hub. The U.S. has already begun moves to end special trade terms and others dispensations given to Hong Kong after the former British colony was handed over to Chinese rule in 1997.
The government has said the legislation is aimed at curbing subversive, secessionist and terrorist activities, as well as foreign intervention in the city’s affairs. It follows months of anti-government protests in Hong Kong last year that at times descended into violence.
Speaking in a video message to the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva, Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam said the law would “only target an extremely small minority” of lawbreakers, would not be retroactive, and that mainland legal bodies would only have jurisdiction in “rare, specified situations.”
Critics say it is the most significant erosion to date of Hong Kong’s British-style rule of law and the high degree of autonomy that Beijing promised Hong Kong would enjoy at least through 2047 under a so-called "one country, two systems" framework.
After the law passed, prominent Hong Kong pro-democracy activists Joshua Wong, Agnes Chow and Nathan Law issued statements on Facebook saying they would withdraw from the pro-democracy organization Demosisto. Wong said "worrying about life and safety has become a real issue and nobody will be able to predict the repercussions of the law, whether it is being extradited to China or facing long jail terms."
Demosisto then announced on Facebook that it was disbanding, saying the loss of top members made it difficult to continue.
More than a hundred protesters gathered at a luxury mall in Hong Kong’s Central business district, chanting slogans including "Free Hong Kong, Revolution Now," with several holding up a flag representing an independent Hong Kong as well as posters condemning the law.
The law’s passage "represents the greatest threat to human rights in the city’s recent history," said the head of Amnesty International’s China Team, Joshua Rosenzweig.
"The speed and secrecy with which China has pushed through this legislation intensifies the fear that Beijing has calculatingly created a weapon of repression to be used against government critics, including people who are merely expressing their views or protesting peacefully," Rosenzweig said in a statement.
Concerns were also expressed in Taiwan, which Beijing claims as its own territory to be brought under its control by force if necessary.
"China promised that Hong Kong would remain unchanged for 50 years. The adoption of the National Security Law makes people feel that this commitment is indeed a blow to public confidence," Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen said. "We are disappointed that China cannot fulfill its commitments, which also proves that the ‘one country, two systems’ is not feasible."
Several other nations expressed concern over the law Tuesday.
"It is regrettable that the national security law was enacted despite strong concerns shared among the international society and the people of Hong Kong," Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi said. "It will undermine trust for the principle of ‘one country, two systems.'"
Ahead of the law's passage, the Trump administration said Monday it will bar defense exports to Hong Kong and will soon require licenses for the sale of items that have both civilian and military uses.
"The United States is forced to take this action to protect U.S. national security," Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement. "We can no longer distinguish between the export of controlled items to Hong Kong or to mainland China. 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 (ruling Communist Party) by any means necessary."
The U.S. Senate on Thursday unanimously approved a bill to impose sanctions on businesses and individuals — including the police — that undermine Hong Kong’s autonomy or restrict freedoms promised to the city’s residents.
Britain has said it could offer residency and possible citizenship to around 3 million of Hong Kong’s 7.5 million people. British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said his government was "deeply concerned" over reports of the law’s passage, saying that would be a "grave step."
China has denounced all such moves as gross interference in its internal affairs and says it will retaliate with visa restrictions on unspecified Americans whose dealings with Hong Kong it finds improper.
"China will take necessary counter-measures to firmly safeguard its own national interests in view of the relevant wrong acts of the United States," foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said at a daily briefing Tuesday.
Under the law, Beijing will set up a national security office in Hong Kong to collect and analyze intelligence and deal with criminal cases related to national security.
Government critics as well as Hong Kong’s legal establishment have said the territory's legal statutes already cover most of the concerns the law purports to address.
They say Beijing is determined to use the law to pursue political opponents, including possibly trying them in mainland courts under Communist Party control. They have questioned the legal basis on which China proceeded with the legislation, saying it undermines the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini-constitution.
An earlier attempt to pass a security law in 2003 was dropped after hundreds of thousands of people marched in Hong Kong's streets against it.
China for years had put off another such effort but party leader Xi Jinping has increasingly sought to strengthen Beijing’s hand in the territory in keeping with his tightening of control over Chinese society and his more assertive foreign policy.
Chinese officials have railed against what they claim is foreign interference in the territory that they blame for encouraging last year's anti-government protests. Beijing condemned those protests as an attempt to permanently split Hong Kong away from China.
Drafting of the law took place amid intense secrecy, with even top Hong Kong officials reportedly not given advance notice of its specifics.
It is believed that Beijing will now also have ultimate power over appointments to top government departments, further reducing the relative independence it promised to Hong Kong in a 1984 joint declaration with Britain that is considered an international treaty.
Questions also linger over the effects on Hong Kong’s free press that has come under increasing political and financial pressure, as well as the operations of non-governmental organizations, particularly those with foreign connections.
The law’s passage comes after Hong Kong’s legislature in early June approved a contentious bill making it illegal to insult the Chinese national anthem. Pro-China figures have also been pushing for more “patriotic” education to be introduced into the curriculum in hopes that will boost their identification with Beijing.
Moritsugu reported from Beijing.