Chinese lawmakers have been meeting behind closed doors in Beijing this week to push forward a proposed national security law that could drastically curtail free political expression in Hong Kong and add to China’s tensions with the West.
A session of the National People’s Congress Standing Committee — the Communist country’s top legislative body — ends on Saturday, and Hong Kong residents are waiting to learn if the committee will release a draft of the proposed law, or even hastily enact it.
A law to curb opposition in Hong Kong.
China’s Communist Party leaders have long worried about imposing control over Hong Kong, a British colony until 1997. The Basic Law, which enshrines Hong Kong’s special legal status, says the semiautonomous territory should enact national legislation that outlaws “any act of treason, secession, sedition, subversion” against the central government.
But many of Hong Kong residents, proudly protective of their rights under the territory’s separate legal system, have opposed attempts to pass such legislation. A previous push by Hong Kong’s leaders to enact a national security law foundered in 2003 after nearly 500,000 people joined a street protest against it.
The new law could deter speech and publications critical of the government, stifling the territory’s free press and democratic opposition.
China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, has been impatient to impose control over Hong Kong. After the territory erupted in monthslong protests last year over a proposed extradition law, a Communist Party meeting in October demanded steps to “safeguard national security” in Hong Kong.
Where we left off
In the summer of 2019, Hong Kong protesters began fighting a rule that would allow extraditions to China. These protests eventually broadened to protect Hong Kong’s autonomy from China. The protests wound down when pro-democracy candidates notched a stunning victory in Hong Kong elections in November, in what was seen as a pointed rebuke of Beijing and its allies in Hong Kong.
Late in 2019, the protests then quieted.
How it’s different this time
Those peaceful mass rallies that occurred in June of 2019 were pointed against the territory leadership of Hong Kong. Later, they devolved into often-violent clashes between some protesters and police officers and lasted through November 2019. The current protests are aimed at mainland China.
What’s happening now
To China, the rules are necessary to protect the country’s national sovereignty. To critics, they further erode the relative autonomy granted to the territory after Britain handed it back to China in 1997.
Updated May 27, 2020
Beijing, frustrated at the failure of the Hong Kong authorities to enact a national security law on their own, decided to take matters into its own hands. The central government’s decision to impose a law on Hong Kong effectively circumvents the local legislature.
Beijing takes matters into its own hands.
Legal experts were uncertain how Mr. Xi could impose a national security law on Hong Kong without going through the city’s Legislative Council, a body stacked with pro-Beijing members who have, nonetheless, hesitated to take such a contentious step.
But he cleared up the confusion late last month, when China’s National People’s Congress nearly unanimously passed a resolution empowering the Congress’s Standing Committee to amend the Basic Law and impose anti-sedition regulations on the territory.
For safe measure, the congress ordered Hong Kong to introduce its own national security law, meaning the territory could be subject to two laws that potentially overlap or conflict.
Now, eyes are on the National People’s Congress Standing Committee, which meets every two months or so, to see if it will pass the legislation on Saturday or release a draft. A spokesman for the committee said on Thursday that the proposed law would take aim at separatism, subversion, terrorism and “colluding with foreign powers.” Critics say those sweeping labels could be used to stifle political opposition in Hong Kong.
Draft legislation typically goes through two or three sessions of deliberation before going to a vote, and some experts do not believe the law will be passed on Saturday. Then again, Mr. Xi may want to finish things quickly.
Residents fear what the law will mean.
Since Beijing’s announcement in late May, politicians in Hong Kong have debated the law, though very few were included in the central government’s process to draft it. Most Hong Kong lawmakers, like the city’s residents, do not know the exact provisions in the proposed law.
Pro-democracy activists have denounced the proposed law, and the Hong Kong Bar Association has called it unconstitutional.
A mainland official suggested this week that Beijing would exercise direct jurisdiction over the most serious national security cases occurring in Hong Kong, meaning residents could be extradited to mainland China for trial. Those remarks caused even some pro-Beijing politicians to voice misgivings.
Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s leader, has sought to reassure the public that the “legitimate rights and freedoms” of citizens would be safeguarded, while criticizing opponents for “demonizing” the law. But even she admitted to not knowing exactly what the law will include.
Western governments object. But will they act?
As China has moved forward with plans to impose tougher security laws in Hong Kong, many world leaders have criticized the decision.
Foreign ministers representing the Group of 7 leading industrialized democracies called on China this week to abandon the plan, saying the law would undermine the autonomy of the territory.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Thursday that the security law would “jeopardize the system that has allowed Hong Kong to flourish.” He warned last month that the Trump administration could revoke Hong Kong’s special economic status, essential to the territory’s commercial access to the United States.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain has promised to allow nearly three million people from Hong Kong to live and work in the country. Mr. Johnson, however, has left unanswered questions about how those admitted might be able to obtain British citizenship.
Taiwan said on Thursday that it would expand efforts to provide refuge to protesters and others who wish to leave Hong Kong. The government said it could, in certain cases, provide work and study visas, as well as assistance securing housing and jobs.
Elaine Yu contributed reporting from Hong Kong, and Javier Hernandez from Taipei, Taiwan.