China gathers supporters for looming Hong Kong security law

Volunteers counts ballots in Hong Kong on June 20, 2020, following a vote organised by a selection of pro-democracy unions. PHOTO: AFP

HONG KONG (BLOOMBERG) - China's top agencies overseeing Hong Kong gathered pro-Beijing supporters on Tuesday (June 23) to discuss looming national security legislation, the latest sign that Beijing is nearing enactment of the controversial law despite widespread criticism that it will erode freedom in the Asian financial hub.

Chinese authorities held meetings on Tuesday with 120 representatives from Hong Kong's various sectors - including business, politics and labour - to discuss the legislation, the Chinese government's Liaison Office in the city said in a statement late yesterday. All attendees supported the law and most participants expressed their hopes that it be enacted as soon as possible, it said.

It's the latest in a growing drumbeat of reports from Chinese authorities and state media portraying the semi-autonomous city as being united in support of the bill, despite the absence of a formal consultation and a poll showing a significant number of residents opposing the legislation.

The controversial law, which would give authorities sweeping powers to suppress subversion, sedition, secession and collusion with foreign forces, could be implemented as early as next week.

The schedule of the National People's Congress Standing Committee, China's highest legislative body, sets up the possibility that law could be handed down in time for the July 1 anniversary of Hong Kong's return to Chinese rule. Such timing would serve as pointed push back against the city's protest movement, since pro-democracy activists usually hold their biggest march of the year on the holiday. Last year, a group of radicals broke into and ransacked the Legislative Council chamber on that date.

Beijing has been criticised by opposition politicians in Hong Kong, as well as foreign governments including the US, for moving to impose the legislation on the former British colony without debate in the local legislature. Pro-democracy groups have warned the law would destroy the unique freedoms that make the city distinct from the mainland and attractive to international business.

The move has also worsened ties with the US, which has threatened retaliation.

Tuesday's gatherings featured a host of high-level mainland officials, including the deputy director of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, Zhang Xiaoming, Liaison Office Director Luo Huining, and Zhang Yong, the legislative affairs commission's vice chairman.

Although Hong Kong is constitutionally mandated to implement national security legislation on its own, successive governments have failed to do so after an attempt in 2003 sparked mass protests.

Still, Beijing's announcement in May that it would bypass Hong Kong's usual policy making process and force the legislation through has alarmed many residents who say China's move violates the "one country, two systems" principle that guarantees the city a "high degree of autonomy" until at least 2047.

The Legislative Council, which is dominated by pro-establishment politicians, normally holds multiple debates over proposed laws, allowing both pro-government and opposition politicians to voice their views over months or years. The national anthem law, which was only recently passed after stiff opposition, was similarly pushed onto Hong Kong by Beijing in 2017.

Hong Kong's Chief Executive Carrie Lam, who was appointed by a committee stacked with Beijing loyalists, has defended the national security bill along with others in her administration. However, she has acknowledged as recently as Tuesday that she had not seen a full copy of the legislation.

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