HONG KONG — China's Communist Party will impose a sweeping national security law in Hong Kong by fiat during the annual meeting of its top political body, officials said Thursday, criminalizing "foreign interference" along with secessionist activities and subversion of state power.
After steadily eroding Hong Kong’s political freedoms, Beijing signaled that the national security law will be a new tool that allows it to directly tackle the political dissent that erupted on Hong Kong’s streets last year. The months-long and sometimes violent protests began last June and fizzled out only over public health concerns related to the coronavirus outbreak.
The new tactic marks an escalation in Beijing’s crackdown in the former British colony and the clearest indication that it views Hong Kong as a restive region to be brought to heel after last year’s protests.
The city’s future has become a point of contention in the intensifying rivalry between China and the United States; on Wednesday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Washington was “closely watching what’s going on” in Hong Kong. Pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong have directly appealed to Washington for intervention, frequently waving American flags on the streets, and see themselves as the last bastion of resistance against an increasingly assertive Beijing under President Xi Jinping.
“Beijing has opted for the most risky route,” said Ho-Fung Hung, a professor of international relations at Johns Hopkins University. “It will show the world that ‘one country, two systems’ is, if not already over, almost over.”
He added: “It will be very difficult for anyone, especially the United States, to say Hong Kong is still autonomous and viable.”
On Thursday, China made clear it was asserting control over Hong Kong through “improvement” of its governance.
“We will ensure the long-term stability of ‘one country, two systems,’ ” Wang Yang, head of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, said at the opening of the annual meeting of China’s top political advisory body. The meeting is the first part of the Two Sessions political gatherings, which will continue Friday with the National People’s Congress (NPC), the rubber-stamp parliament.
“We will continue to support the improvement of the implementation of the systems and mechanisms of the constitution and Basic Law,” Wang said in a report to the meeting.
Later Thursday, representatives from Beijing’s Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office met with Hong Kong delegates to China’s legislature to explain the details of the national security law. The law, a direct response to last year’s protests, will ban secession, subversion of state power, foreign interference and terrorism, said Stanley Ng, a Hong Kong deputy to the NPC, who attended the meeting.
The legislation could pass as early as next week and will bypass all of Hong Kong’s usual processes.
Similar laws were proposed in 2003 and would have allowed authorities to conduct searches without warrants. But they were abandoned after mass protests and never picked up locally again.
“The social unrest last year showed that the Hong Kong government was unable to handle passing [national security legislation] on its own,” said Ng, a Beijing loyalist who has for years pushed for a similar law. “Hong Kong’s status will be sacrificed with or without this law if society is unstable due to the protesters’ violence.”
Zhang Yesui, the spokesman for the NPC session, said in comments to Chinese media that Hong Kong is an “inseparable” part of China and that national security is the cornerstone of stability in the country.
“In light of new circumstances and needs, the National People’s Congress is exercising the power that is enshrined in the [Chinese] constitution to establish and improve” Hong Kong’s legal framework, he said.
The Hong Kong dollar weakened sharply against the U.S. dollar as the reports emerged.
Beijing blamed last year’s unrest on secessionist forces and foreign influence. A government proposal to allow extraditions to mainland China touched off the unrest, but the movement grew into a broader and sometimes violent rebellion calling for full democracy and opposing China’s efforts to chip away at Hong Kong’s firewall with the mainland.
President Trump has sharply stepped up denunciations of China over his claims it failed to warn the world of the coronavirus dangers in the outbreak’s early weeks. But his comments on Hong Kong were less direct.
“I don’t know what it is because nobody knows yet,” Trump told reporters as he left the White House on Thursday. “If it happens, we’ll address that issue very strongly.” He did not elaborate.
At the State Department, spokesman Morgan Ortagus called China’s expected move “highly destabilizing” for Hong Kong.
“Any effort to impose national security legislation that does not reflect the will of the people of Hong Kong would be highly destabilizing,” she said, “and would be met with strong condemnation from the United States and the international community.”
Wang did not elaborate on what “improvement” meant. But he also referred to the Chinese territory of Macao, a gambling hub where open displays of political dissent are rare and where most leaders toe Beijing’s line.
The shift will have far-reaching effects. Under the agreement Britain signed with China before it handed back Hong Kong in 1997, the territory is supposed to enjoy its relative freedoms until at least 2047 under the “one country, two systems” framework.
This arrangement helped Hong Kong to flourish as a global financial center even after returning to Beijing’s overall control, and has allowed the United States and other nations to treat the city differently from China. It also allowed Hong Kong to run its own affairs, except foreign affairs and defense.
But under Xi’s leadership, the Communist Party has encroached on Hong Kong’s autonomy with stunning speed.
“I’m speechless,” Dennis Kwok, a pro-democracy lawmaker, said of the proposed national security legislation. Kwok was singled out for criticism by Beijing and was recently removed from his chairmanship of a key Legislative Council committee. “This is a complete and total surprise and I think it means the end of one ‘country, two systems.’ ”
Kwok said that the Hong Kong government and Beijing had used the coronavirus pandemic as cover to clamp down on the city.
“When the world is not watching, they are killing Hong Kong, killing ‘one country, two systems,’ and using social distancing rules to keep people from coming out to protest,” he said. “This is the most devastating thing to happen to Hong Kong since the handover.”
On Wednesday, Pompeo warned China about its actions in Hong Kong, saying that the city’s pro-democracy lawmakers had been “manhandled” this week “while trying to stop a procedural irregularity by pro-Beijing legislators.”
“Leading Hong Kong activists like Martin Lee and Jimmy Lai were hauled into court,” Pompeo told a news conference in Washington. “Actions like these make it more difficult to assess that Hong Kong remains highly autonomous from mainland China,” he said.
For the United States to treat Hong Kong as a separate entity, mostly for commercial purposes, the State Department must certify that the city retains “a high degree of autonomy” from China. Pompeo said its latest decision on this was still pending.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry, through its office of the commissioner to Hong Kong, said Thursday that Pompeo was “blackmailing” the Hong Kong government and accused him of “blatant interference” in China’s internal affairs. It also took aim at Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) for placing “unjustifiable pressure on China’s central government.”
“Certain U.S. politicians are repeatedly carping on about [Hong Kong’s] legislative and judiciary branches in a vain attempt to glorify and exculpate the rioters who oppose China and seek to stir up trouble in Hong Kong,” it said. “They just don’t want to see Hong Kong heal its divides and get back on track: Their sinister motives are thoroughly exposed, and their ‘black hands’ are bared for all to see.”
In recent months, Beijing has installed a tough new representative in Hong Kong, called for patriotic education to instill more allegiance to China, and promoted a bill that would make it a criminal offense to disrespect China’s national anthem.
Delegates from Hong Kong, including Carrie Lam, the city’s chief executive, arrived in Beijing on Thursday for the Two Sessions.
Wang said Beijing supports the Hong Kong deputies’ efforts to “avoid violence in Hong Kong and to restore order.”
But as news of the proposal spread, calls were issued for more mass protests in Hong Kong.
“The arms of tyranny have reached Hong Kong,” said Ted Hui, a pro-democracy lawmaker who was a regular participant in protests last year. “Darker days are coming.”
Fifield reported from New Zealand. Wang Yuan in Beijing and Carol Morello in Washington contributed to this report.