BEIJING – China has set the dates for a draft national security act for Hong Kong to be debated and voted on over the next week, a clear sign that Beijing is tightening its grip over the former British colony that has been rocked by pro-democracy protests.
The new law will ban any acts that “split the country”, subvert state powers or organise terrorist activities, an official summary stated.
A seven-point draft submitted to China’s parliament, the National People’s Congress (NPC), on Friday (May 22) will be debated on Tuesday and Thursday, according to an official schedule. It is tabled for a vote on Thursday afternoon, the final day of the annual parliamentary meetings.
“We will establish sound legal systems and enforcement mechanisms for safeguarding national security in the two special administrative regions (Hong Kong and Macau), and see that the governments of the two regions fulfil their constitutional responsibilities,” Premier Li Keqiang said at the opening of the NPC on Friday morning.
The new law is necessary because national security risks in the city have become a “prominent problem”, senior NPC official Wang Chen said, adding that it will curtail foreign interference and activities that have “harmed the rule of law and threatened national sovereignty, security and development interests”.
The official summary of the draft law states that “relevant national security organs” of the central government will set up agencies in Hong Kong “when needed”, an indication that Beijing’s state security apparatus may now extend to the territory, where laws have always been enforced by the city’s own police force.
The “relevant laws” will be formulated in Beijing and included in a third annex of the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini constitution, essentially taking the local Legislative Council out of the equation, according to the summary.
Beijing insists that the move is for the prosperity of the region.
"We will support Hong Kong and Macau in growing their economies, improving living standards and better integrating their development into China's overall development, and help them maintain long-term prosperity and stability," Premier Li said on Friday.
He noted that both territories would be governed by its own people, an indication that Beijing intends to keep local leaders in both cities.
Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam and Macau chief executive Ho Iat-seng were in the audience during Mr Li's speech, seated next to each other on a dais behind the podium, nodding as he mentioned both regions.
When announcing the addition of the draft law to the parliamentary agenda on Thursday, NPC spokesman Zhang Yesui said: "National security is (the) bedrock underpinning the stability of the country. Safeguarding national security serves the fundamental interest of all Chinese, our Hong Kong compatriots included."
The move by China’s top law-making body will ban the kind of protests that have rocked Hong Kong over the past year.
It is also an attempt to break a 17-year impasse - the last time the territory's government tried to pass the law in 2003, it brought half a million onto the streets in protest, leading to the then government shelving its plans.
Since Hong Kong's return to China from British rule, it has been governed under the "one country, two systems" principle, guaranteeing a high degree of autonomy for at least 50 years. This includes freedoms unseen in the mainland, such as an independent judiciary, a separate legislature, and free speech.
Erosion of freedoms
But there are concerns that these freedoms have been gradually eroded in recent years.
An attempt at passing a controversial extradition Bill last year - which would have allowed fugitives to be handed over to mainland China - triggered protests that brought millions onto the streets and deeply divided the city. The Bill was eventually rescinded.
Pro-democracy activists say the protests were a manifestation of unhappiness at the shrinking space for dissent and the Hong Kong government’s mishandling of the city. Beijing says foreign forces encouraged the unrest in the city.
While there are fears that Beijing’s latest move may spark fresh protests in the city, the international reaction this time could be far more muted, according to China watcher Bill Bishop.
"The US may revoke some of the special treatment it gives Hong Kong, but Xi and the Party Centre may believe they can act with near impunity, especially now when most countries who would oppose this move are distracted and weakened by the pandemic," he wrote in the latest issue of his Sinocism newsletter.
This is a devastating blow to the "one country, two systems" framework, which was "already in tatters", said historian Jeffrey Wasserstrom, author of Vigil: Hong Kong On The Brink.
"I think it is safe to say that there will be renewed protests, but it would be foolish, given both the speed with which the screws are tightening on the city and the creativity as well as resilience protesters have shown over the years, to predict just what form expressions of discontent will take (and) can take," he said.
Former Portuguese colony Macau is governed under a similar system but has often been lauded by Beijing as a success story of the “one country, two systems” principle.
The gaming hub managed to pass a national security law in 2009, which prohibits and punishes acts of "treason, secession, and subversion" against the central government, as well as "preparatory acts" leading to any of the three acts.
Meanwhile, Beijing said it invites the people of Taiwan to “promote reunification”, leaving out the word "peaceful" in an apparent policy shift that comes at a time when cross-strait relations are especially fraught, and just days after Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen’s inauguration for a second term.
Beijing considers Taiwan a renegade province that must be united with the mainland, by force if necessary.
“We will encourage (the Taiwanese) to join us in opposing ‘Taiwan independence’ and promoting China’s reunification,” Premier Li said. “With these efforts, we can surely create a beautiful future for the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.”
A senior Taiwan official, however, told Reuters that the absence of the word "peaceful" did not signal a fundamental change in China's approach towards the self-governed island.
"They are still talking about the concept of peaceful unification, just in an indirect linguistic expression," said the person who is familiar with Taiwan's policy towards China, referring to Mr Li's remarks on cross-strait exchanges and economic integration.
"It's neutral. We do not look at it that way."