China passes controversial Hong Kong national security law

Critics say the measure, which criminalises secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces, devastates Hong Kong’s autonomy

A controversial national security law giving Beijing unprecedented powers over Hong Kong has gone into effect, according to the semi-autonomous territory’s government.

Late on Tuesday, China unveiled the full details of a sweeping anti-sedition law after the country’s top legislative body unanimously approved it earlier in the day. Published just after it went into effect at 11pm, the law lays out penalties as severe as life imprisonment for the crimes secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces.

According to the official state news agency Xinhua, the Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, signed a presidential order enacting the law, and and the committee also voted to list it in Hong Kong’s basic law, the city’s mini-constitution.

The measure 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. Rights advocates and legal scholars believe the law will be used broadly to stifle dissent.

“The passing of the national security law is a painful moment for the people of Hong Kong and represents the greatest threat to human rights in the city’s recent history,” said Joshua Rosenzweig, the head of Amnesty International’s China Team.

“From now on, China will have the power to impose its own laws on any criminal suspect it chooses,” he said.

Prominent activists believe they are likely to be arrested imminently. 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.

“From now on Hong Kong enters a new ear of reign of terror,” activist Joshua Wong wrote on Twitter. “However, even under ... China’s direct authoritarian rule Hong Kongers will continue to fight … When justice fails, our fight goes on,” he said.

Residents were waiting for the full details of how punitive the law would be once enacted. The editor of the state-run Global Times said the heaviest penalty would be life imprisonment, while Hong Kong public broadcaster RTHK said some especially “serious” cases may be handled in Chinese courts on the mainland.

According to a summary released previously by Chinese state media, 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 but critics say such language means little given how similar laws are used in mainland China.

A statement from the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs office of China’s state council on Tuesday said: “For the small minority of people who endanger national security, this law is a sword hanging over their heads.”

In the decades since the handover, 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, especially as the government under Xi 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. “These acts have crossed the ‘one country’ red line and called for resolute action,” Lam told a UN human rights forum on Tuesday.

“No central government could turn a blind eye to such threats to sovereignty and national security as well as risks of subversion of state power,” she said.

China’s move to push through a national security law for Hong Kong stunned Hong Kong residents and the international community when it was first proposed in May, creating new diplomatic tensions as countries have condemned Beijing.

The UK foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, said his country was “deeply concerned”. “This would be a grave step,” he said.

The EU Council president, Charles Michel, told reporters that the law risks “seriously undermining the high degree of autonomy of Hong Kong” as well as the independence of its judiciary and the rule of law. “We deplore the decision,” he said.

On Tuesday, Japan called the development “regrettable”. President Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan, which is opening a dedicated office to helping residents fleeing from Hong Kong, said the latest move from Beijing shows that the one country, two systems formula is “not feasible.”

“We hope Hong Kong people continue to adhere to the freedom, democracy and human rights that they cherish,” she told media.

In response to Beijing’s measure, the US is revoking the city’s special trade status as separate from China. US officials said on Monday that it would stop exporting sensitive military items to Hong Kong, after announcing plans to limit visas for current and former Chinese officials responsible for undermining Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said at a regular press briefing on Tuesday that Beijing would take “necessary countermeasures”. “China is not intimidated. US conspiracies to thwart the national security legislation will not succeed,” he said.

Critics say the law marks Beijing’s full takeover of Hong Kong, which was promised 50 years of a “high degree of autonomy” after the handover. The national security law will be directly enacted into Hong Kong’s law through a legal manoeuvre that bypasses the territory’s own legislature and the possibility of public dissent stopping the process. Mass protests in 2003 halted similar legislation attempted by the Hong Kong government.

“A national security law was imposed on Hong Kong through a process nobody in Hong Kong had any control over, with content nobody in Hong Kong was privy to. That should put an end to the nation that Hong Kong remains autonomous in any meaningful way,” said Alvin Cheung, a legal scholar focusing on Hong Kong issues at New York University’s US-Asia Law Institute.


Lily Kuo in Beijing and Guardian reporter in Hong Kong

The GuardianTramp

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