BEIJING — China signaled Thursday it would move forward with laws that would take aim at anti-government protests and other dissent in Hong Kong. It is the clearest message yet that the Communist Party is moving to undermine the civil liberties the semi-autonomous territory has known since the 1997 British handoff.
The proposal to enact new security laws affecting Hong Kong was announced before the annual meeting of China’s legislature, which is expected to approve a broad outline of the plan. While specifics of the proposal were not immediately disclosed, the rules could be harsher than anything Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing government has done to curb opposition to the mainland.
The freedoms that have distinguished Hong Kong from the mainland, like an unfettered judiciary and freedom of assembly, have helped the former British colony prosper as a global city of commerce and capital. But the proposal raised the possibility that the Beijing government would damage the “one country, two systems” policy that has ensured such liberties since the territory was reclaimed by China.
The plan also revives the threat of violent demonstrations that convulsed the city for months and risks worsening China’s deteriorating relationship with the Trump administration, which said the United States would respond strongly to any crackdown in Hong Kong.
In the Communist Party’s view, tightened security laws in Hong Kong are necessary to protect China from external forces determined to impinge on its sovereignty. The legislation would give Beijing power to counter the Hong Kong protests, which are seen as a blatant challenge to the party and China’s leader, Xi Jinping.
Security rules proposed by the Hong Kong government in 2003 would have empowered authorities to close seditious newspapers and conduct searches without warrants. That proposal was abandoned after it triggered large protests.
This time, China is effectively circumventing the Hong Kong government, undercutting the relative autonomy granted to the territory. Instead, it is going through China’s rubber-stamp legislature, the National People’s Congress, which opened its annual session Friday.
Zhang Yesui, spokesman for the National People’s Congress, said at a news briefing Thursday that delegates would review a plan to create a legal framework and enforcement mechanism for safeguarding national security in Hong Kong. He did not elaborate on the details of the plan.
“National security is the bedrock underpinning the stability of the country,” Zhang said. “Safeguarding national security serves the fundamental interest of all Chinese, Hong Kong compatriots included.”
In a clear effort to head off international concerns, China’s foreign ministry sent a letter Thursday night to ambassadors posted to Beijing, urging them to support the legislation and laying out the government’s position.
“The opposition in Hong Kong have long colluded with external forces to carry out acts of secession, subversion, infiltration and destruction against the Chinese mainland,” the letter said.
It drew criticism from Morgan Ortagus, the State Department spokeswoman in Washington. “Any effort to impose national security legislation that does not reflect the will of the people of Hong Kong would be highly destabilizing and would be met with strong condemnation from the United States and the international community,” she said.
The protests in Hong Kong started in June last year after the local government tried to enact an extradition law that would have allowed residents to be transferred to the mainland to face an opaque and often harsh judicial system. Although Hong Kong authorities later withdrew the bill, the demonstrations continued over broader political demands, including a call for free elections and an independent investigation into police conduct.
The Hong Kong government and protesters have both adopted largely uncompromising positions, and demonstrations often descended into clashes between protesters hurling Molotov cocktails and police officers firing tear gas and rubber bullets. While the protests have been muted during the coronavirus pandemic, frustrations in the city have simmered.
And as protests have persisted, Beijing has become increasingly vocal in its objections.
China has denounced the protests as acts of terrorism and accused western nations of fomenting unrest. The party’s Central Committee, a conclave of about 370 senior officials, set the legislative measures in motion in October when it announced after a four-day meeting that it would roll out new steps to “safeguard national security” in Hong Kong.
Xi, one of China’s most powerful leaders in decades, warned in December that the party would not allow challenges to its authority or the interference of “external forces,” a veiled rebuke to the protest movement in Hong Kong.
One month later, the party signaled it was taking a harder line when it replaced its top representative in Hong Kong with a senior official with a record of working closely with security services. Whereas the party had until recently left the handling of the crisis to the city’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, Beijing is now weighing in more directly with warnings not to test its patience.
On Thursday, the People’s Daily, the official mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party, and Xinhua, the state-run news agency, ran commentaries calling for the “tumor” of pro-independence sentiment in Hong Kong to be excised. Neither specified how this might be done.
Chinese officials have long been frustrated that the Hong Kong government has been unable to pass its own security legislation. Article 23 of the Basic Law, the mini-constitution governing Hong Kong’s status under China, requires the territory to “enact laws on its own to prohibit any act of treason, secession, sedition and subversion” against the Chinese government.
Protests have only intensified the calls for such rules. Pro-Beijing leaders in Hong Kong have said that stringent laws are needed to prevent further street violence and protect China’s national sovereignty.
The legislation to be put forward in Beijing is “not necessarily a stopgap measure but a necessary means to plug some glaring loopholes in Hong Kong’s national security laws,” said Lau Siu-kai, a former senior Hong Kong government official who is now vice president of the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macao Studies, an elite Beijing advisory group.
Lau said that the legislature would pave the way for its top committee to draft security laws specific to Hong Kong. Beijing blames much of the unrest in the semi-autonomous territory on interference by unseen foreign forces, and the focus of the coming legislation would be to stop that meddling, he said.
“The main purpose is to demonstrate Beijing’s determination and ability to safeguard sovereignty and national security and to end the turmoil in Hong Kong,” he added.
Almost immediately, the move by the Chinese legislature prompted concerns about the ramifications for Hong Kong and condemnation by the city’s democracy advocates.
On internet forums and chat groups frequently used to organize protests, some people expressed concerns about whether their past conversations could implicate them should the new laws be passed. Others urged users to download virtual private networking services to cloak their identities while some debated whether to delete their chat histories and disband the discussion groups.
“Hong Kong independence is the only way out,” chanted a group of protesters gathered in a luxury shopping mall Thursday.
Users flocked to LIHKG, a Reddit-like forum popular with protesters, to trade jokes about how the impending legislation would change life in the city. Some users said they would swear allegiance to China with oaths laced with references to the protests, while others bid farewell to the city as they knew it.
Nathan Law, a pro-democracy advocate, urged protesters not to give up.
“At this time last year, didn’t we believe that the extradition law was sure to pass? Hong Kongers have always created miracles,” he wrote on Facebook.
The imposition of security legislation in Hong Kong also represents a fresh blow to the confidence of investors, tourists and others who have helped propel the city to prosperity over the past half century.
Retail sales started dropping last summer during the city’s street protests and further slumped as the coronavirus epidemic took hold. Rents and real estate prices have started to fall. Some of the city’s citizens and expatriates are looking to more politically stable islands, like Singapore and Taiwan, to live and park their cash.
Hong Kong has long served to channel money between China and the outside world. But a broader security crackdown by Beijing may prompt more investors to worry that Hong Kong is no longer beyond China’s authoritarian reach.
“This is the end of Hong Kong,” said Dennis Kwok, an opposition lawmaker. “I foresee that the international status of Hong Kong as a city — an international city — will be gone very soon.”