The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

China enacts Hong Kong security law, escalating confrontation with U.S.

Police stop and search people during a protest of the national security law on Sunday in Hong Kong. (Anthony Kwan/Getty Images)

China on Tuesday adopted a contentious national security law that will allow Beijing to override Hong Kong’s judicial system and target political opponents in the city, stripping the territory of autonomy promised under the handover agreement with Britain and raising the prospect of further retaliation from Washington.

The move has strained China’s relations with the United States and other Western nations, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo saying on Friday that Washington would place visa restrictions on Chinese officials responsible for curtailing freedoms in Hong Kong. On Monday, China said it would impose reciprocal measures on unspecified American officials, while the Commerce Department suspended some of Hong Kong’s preferential trade treatment under U.S. law.

Chinese lawmakers voted unanimously to push through the law on the eve of the 23rd anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover on July 1, 1997, Tam Yiu-chung, Hong Kong’s delegate to the Chinese legislative committee that examined the law, told reporters in Beijing. The date is usually marked by a massive march in Hong Kong, but the city’s police have banned the event this year, citing social distancing rules and the potential for violence.

Beijing is fast-tracking authoritarian laws in Hong Kong to target political opposition, forcing some of the city's families to seek freedom elsewhere. (Video: Shibani Mahtani/The Washington Post)

According to a summary of the law published earlier by the state-run Xinhua News Agency, the law will establish a Commission for Safeguarding National Security in Hong Kong, which answers to the central government and whose remit covers secession, subversion of state power, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces — charges frequently leveled against critics of the ruling Communist Party.

Officials in Hong Kong say they have not seen precise details of the law, though the Hong Kong government has undertaken a promotional campaign urging people to support it. Asked about the measures at a news conference on Tuesday, Chief Executive Carrie Lam said it was not appropriate to comment.

In a statement late Monday, Pompeo said China’s crackdown on Hong Kong had prompted the United States to retool its relationship with Hong Kong. “If China wants to regain the trust of Hong Kongers and the international community, it should honor the promises it made to the Hong Kong people and to the United Kingdom in the U.N.-registered 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration,” he said.

Hong Kong families, fearing a reign of terror, prepare to flee the city

After months of sometimes-violent protests in Hong Kong against Beijing’s encroachment last year, the new security law has heightened doubts about Hong Kong’s future as a global financial hub and a regional base for international companies that for years were drawn by the city’s relative freedoms. With those freedoms now in rapid retreat, many Hong Kongers say they are planning to flee the city.

Activists are bracing for arrests of pro-democracy figures such as media tycoon Jimmy Lai, lawyer Martin Lee and young activist Joshua Wong, all of whom have been targeted for years by Beijing and demonized by Chinese state media. Other less prominent figures and those arrested over their participation in pro-democracy protests also fear that the sting of the new laws will soon reach them.

“It is a really tough time for us. I hope that next week, I will still be able to answer phone calls from journalists,” Wong said in an interview on Monday. “Now is the time for the world to support Hong Kong people, and it is only more global pressure that can ensure my personal safety.”

Student activists also say their teachers have asked them to stop taking interviews with the foreign press, or engaging with any activism once the national security law passes.

“I am afraid. My parents have told me that if the national security law has passed, you should move to Taiwan or somewhere else,” said Charis Wong, a founder of Ideologist, a group of pro-democracy high school students. “But we can’t change the fact that the Communist Party has already targeted us.”

U.S. blocks visas for Chinese officials deemed responsible for ‘eviscerating’ Hong Kong freedoms

Beijing has been pressing Hong Kong’s politicians to enact such a national security law since the 1997 handover, but previous attempts by local officials were halted by heavy protests. This time, Beijing is going to the extraordinary step of circumventing Hong Kong’s lawmakers, invoking a previously disused provision in the city’s mini-constitution.

Victor Gao, a former Chinese Foreign Ministry official who is now a chair professor at China’s Soochow University, said that the protests in Hong Kong last year prompted Beijing to push through the law, after years of waiting for the city to enact it itself.

“What we’ve seen over the last 12 months,” he said, “is a very dire progression of violence in Hong Kong.”

Yun Jiang, director of the Australia-based China Policy Center, said that other countries may follow the United States in sanctioning China, though cautiously, because of the risk of Chinese retaliation.

“China is unlikely to back down from these types of pressures,” she said. “Targeted sanctions will not, by themselves, change the stance of the Chinese government towards Hong Kong.”

What is happening in Hong Kong?

While the law faced strong resistance from Hong Kong’s people, it would probably have a chilling effect on protest in the longer term, Jiang said.

“At least initially, instead of dampening the pro-democracy movement, it may have the opposite effect,” she said. “However, in the long run, it will likely stifle any trend towards democracy.”

Last year’s protests were sparked by a government proposal to allow Hong Kong criminal suspects to be extradited to mainland China, a step many viewed as a further effort to erode rule of law in the city and the firewall between Hong Kong and the mainland. Beijing characterized the uprising, which broadened to encompass demands for democracy and police accountability, as terrorism fueled by foreign governments.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said earlier in June that if China passed the law, London would provide a path to citizenship for millions of residents of Hong Kong.

Lyric Li in Beijing contributed to this report.

Hong Kong families, fearing a reign of terror, prepare to flee the city

U.S. blocks visas for Chinese officials deemed responsible for ‘eviscerating’ Hong Kong freedoms

China presses ahead with security law to curtail Hong Kong’s political freedoms