Beijing has reportedly passed a vast national security law for Hong Kong that critics fear will crush political freedoms and pave the way for China to consolidate its control over semi-autonomous territory.
Less than 40 days after Chinese lawmakers first proposed imposing an anti-sedition law in Hong Kong, the National People’s Congress standing committee approved the measure on Tuesday, criminalizing secession, subversion, terrorism. and collusion with foreign forces. Several Hong Kong media organizations, citing unnamed sources, reported that the law was unanimously approved by the committee.
The law, which was internationally condemned, deals a devastating blow to Hong Kong̵
In the decades that followed, the free press of Hong Kong, the courts and independent legislatures, as well as its traditions of protests and marches, made the city a haven for civil liberties not enjoyed across the border in mainland China, especially as the government under Xi Jinping has further suppressed civil society.
These differences were seriously highlighted last year when protests – for another controversial bill that residents saw as a further Chinese invasion of their city – turned into a larger democratic movement. The authorities have made it clear that the legislation is aimed at stopping those protests, which have created new diplomatic tensions and added to an increasingly hostile international environment for Beijing.
Beijing has accused the United States and other foreign “black hands” of inciting demonstrations to destabilize China. The United States on Monday said it intended to stop exporting sensitive military objects to Hong Kong, as it moved to withdraw the city’s special commercial status as separate from China in retaliation for the looming national security law. The United States also said that it would limit visas for current and former Chinese officials deemed “responsible or complicit, undermining Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy.”
Legal scholars and critical residents claim that the law effectively destroys a country, two systems, a firewall between Hong Kong and China, intended to preserve the city’s “high degree of autonomy” for 50 years after delivery. Beijing defended the measure by calling other countries hypocrites when it criticized China for taking steps to defend its national security.
While widely convicted in mainland China, where state media routinely describe protesters as violent “rioters” and “terrorists”, a minority of Chinese activists and residents have been punished for supporting Hong Kong protests.
According to previously released details, the law will see Beijing set up a national security agency in Hong Kong to “guide” the territorial implementation of the law. It will also have jurisdiction over cases in “certain circumstances”. In the event of discrepancies, security legislation will take precedence over Hong Kong law. The law promises to protect the civil rights of Hong Kong residents.
Jerome Cohen, an expert on Chinese law at New York University has called this language “eye candy”. “The same provisions of the draft national security law would appear to violate the protections offered by the Hong Kong law and the ICCPR (International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights),” he said referring to the fundamental international human rights treaty of which Hong Kong he is a signatory.
Legal scholars also challenge the way the law was passed, through a legal move that bypasses the Hong Kong legislature itself and the possibility that public dissent will stop the bill. A previous attempt to pass a national security law by pro-Beijing lawmakers and the government has caused mass protests and has been shelved. A complete draft of the law, to be enacted immediately, was not made public before it passed Tuesday.
Officials have promised that the law will target only a “narrow set” of behavior, but defenders and rights watchers believe it will be widely used to crack down on dissent.
“An axiom of criminal law in systems that respect rights is that crimes should be drawn precisely. Otherwise, they are open to the discretion and abuse of those who bring the charges. They’ve been used this way in China, ”said Martin S Flaherty, visiting law professor at Princeton University, who specializes in human rights in China.
He said special detention centers for suspects in national security cases could “become holes in torture, abusive interrogations and forced confessions”.
Prominent activists believe they will likely be arrested a few days after the law was issued. Last year, police arrested more than 9,000 demonstrators, including legislators and democracy activists, who often lobbied to draw international attention to the Hong Kong cause.
However, experts believe the measure could consolidate long-term resistance in Hong Kong, increasing the possibility of even more instability.