China’s plan to impose new national security laws on Hong Kong drew angry condemnation on Friday as activists in the city called for protests and President Donald Trump warned that the United States would react “very strongly” to the planned legislation.
Critics say the security law would destroy the “one country, two systems” framework that was agreed when China took back control of the self-governing Chinese territory in 1997 promising citizens rights and freedoms found nowhere else in the country.
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While it was unclear whether a proposed march to China’s Liaison Office would materialise, it was a reminder of the renewed risk of unrest in Hong Kong as protests begin to resume as the coronavirus recedes.
The legislation could also prove a turning point for the territory, intensifying geopolitical tensions between Beijing and Washington, whose relationship is already weakened by trade disputes and reciprocal accusations over the coronavirus pandemic.
“It is starting to look like a US-China summer of discontent in the making,” Stephen Innes, chief global market strategist at AxiCorp told Reuters news agency.
Speaking on Friday in his annual report to the Chinese parliament, Premier Li Keqiang said China would establish a “sound” legal system and enforcement mechanisms to ensure national security in Hong Kong and Macau, its other semi-autonomous city.
Li again promised that China would “honour and implement” the “one country, two systems” framework, but Al Jazeera’s Adrian Brown said many wonder whether that is really the case.
“We saw pictures of the Great Hall of the People during Li’s speech and I think that is a reminder of where the real power now rests in Hong Kong; not in Hong Kong’s legislature but in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing,” Brown said.
“It is essentially declaring directly that ‘one country, two systems’ is null and a failure,” Eric Cheung, principal lecturer at Hong Kong University’s department of law, told Reuters.
The Hong Kong government’s previous attempt to adopt national security legislation in 2003 was met with a protest that drew more than half a million people onto the streets and was eventually shelved.
‘Force and fear’
China’s latest move to impose the legislation comes after large-scale demonstrations in 2019 that became increasingly violent as the months wore on, creating the biggest crisis in the former British colony since the 1997 handover.
A draft of the legislation obtained by Reuters indicated that the proposed legislation requires the territory to quickly finish enacting national security regulations under its mini-constitution, the Basic law.
According to the legislation, China’s parliament empowers itself to set up the legal framework and implementation mechanism to prevent and punish subversion, terrorism, separatism and foreign interference, “or any acts that severely endanger national security.”
China’s parliamentary Vice Chairman Wang Chen is scheduled to give a speech explaining the new law later on Friday.
Hong Kong-based writer Antony Dapiran said the reference to endangering national security was significant.
“Framing Hong Kong’s democracy as a national security threat and invoking the spectre of “foreign forces” enables Beijing to justify their intervention as related to “foreign affairs” and “defence”, the only two areas (where) Beijing can technically interfere in Hong Kong,” Dapiran wrote on Twitter.
Pro-democracy activists and politicians have long opposed the idea of national security laws, and on Thursday night denounced the plans as “the end of Hong Kong”.
“Beijing is attempting to silence Hong Kongers’ critical voices with force and fear,” pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong tweeted. “Deep down protesters know, we insist not because we are strong, but because we have no other choice.”
The introduction of Hong Kong security laws on the agenda of the Chinese parliament ahead of the annual session which began on Friday morning, drew a warning from US President Donald Trump that Washington would react “very strongly”.
The US State Department also warned China, saying a high-degree of autonomy and respect for human rights were key to preserving the territory’s special status in US law, which has helped it maintain its position as a global financial centre. The city’s stock market had plunged more than 3.5 percent by lunchtime on Friday.
The territory’s last colonial governor, Chris Patten, also weighed in, telling the BBC that the UK should tell China the legislation is “outrageous”.
Mainland departments involved in defending national security will be able to set up in #HongKong, under the legislation Beijing is planning to add into Annex 3 of the Basic Law.
— RTHK English News (@rthk_enews) May 22, 2020
Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council urged Beijing on Friday not to lead Hong Kong into “bigger turmoil” with the move. China claims the self-ruled democratic island as its own, proposing “one country, two systems” as a blueprint for its reunification.
Before the plans for the law were announced, Hong Kong’s democracy movement was already under pressure with 15 people, including some of the territory’s most prominent politicians charged this week for organising and taking part in the protests.
Meanwhile, an Independent Police Complaints Council (IPCC) report into the police handling of the demonstrations absolved the organisation of blame saying force was necessary because of the “illegal action by protesters” and warning them not to use allegations of police brutality as a “political weapon”.
There have also been scuffles in the city’s Legislative Council between pro-Beijing and pro-democracy members ahead of a debate next week on a controversial bill related to China’s national anthem.
Speaking to Al Jazeera before plans for the national security legislation were announced on Thursday, Steve Tsang, director at the China Institute at SOAS in London, said the prospects for Hong Kong were increasingly bleak.
“It’s ‘one country, Xi system’,” he said. “It’s worse than ‘one country, one system’ under Jiang Zemin (China’s president at the time of the handover). It’s about Xi Jinping, not just the Chinese system as it was in 1997.”