China’s parliament passed national security legislation for Hong Kong at exactly 11 p.m. local time on 30 June, which many fear would make it easier to override existing legal processes and reduce the city’s autonomy.
According to media reports, the details of the law’s 66 articles were kept secret until after it was unanimously passed by the Standing Committee of China’s National People’s Congress at 11 p.m., an hour before the 23rd anniversary of the city’s handover to China from British rule.
The legislation dramatically broadens Beijing’s powers to investigate, prosecute and punish suspected criminals in Hong Kong.
With the law being passed, Beijing is now further pushed along a collision course with the United States, Britain and other Western governments, which have said it erodes the high degree of autonomy the global financial hub was granted at its July 1, 1997 handover.
Critics say the law, which wasn’t revealed to the public until after it was passed, marks an “erosion of the city’s precious civil and political freedoms”. The Chinese and local governments, on the other hand, argue that the law is necessary to curb unrest and uphold mainland sovereignty.
In response to the legislation, the United States began eliminating Hong Kong’s special status under U.S. law on the next day, halting defense exports and restricting the territory’s access to high technology products.
In the month of June, China’s official state agency Xinhua unveiled some of its provisions, including that it would supersede existing Hong Kong legislation and that the power of interpretation belongs to the Chinese parliament’s top decision-making body, the National People’s Congress Standing Committee.
The new legislation criminalizes secession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with foreign powers. People who are convicted of such crimes can face sentences up to life in prison.
The new law also authorizes the Chinese central government to establish its own law enforcement presence in Hong Kong, labeled the “Office for Safeguarding National Security.” A secretive national security committee for Hong Kong will also be established, comprised of Hong Kong government officials and an advisor appointed by the Chinese central government.
With this law, Hong Kong’s chief executive will have the power to appoint judges to hear national security cases, raising fears about judicial autonomy.
More importantly, Beijing will have power over how the law should be interpreted, not any Hong Kong judicial or policy body. If the law conflicts with any Hong Kong law, the Beijing law takes priority.
However, authorities in Beijing and Hong Kong have repeatedly said the legislation is aimed at a few “troublemakers” and will not affect rights and freedoms, nor investor interests.
The law comes into force as soon as it is gazetted in Hong Kong, which is seen as imminent.
Hong Kong is one of many developing conflicts between Beijing and Washington, on top of trade issues, the South China Sea and the coronavirus pandemic.
But the United States has been joined by others in condemning the new security legislation.
Britain has said it violated China’s international obligations and its handover agreement, which promised Hong Kong a high degree of autonomy for 50 years under what is known as the “one country, two systems” formula of governance.
The European Parliament earlier in June passed a resolution saying the European Union should take China to the International Court of Justice in The Hague if Beijing imposed the law, also calling on the bloc to use economic leverage to dissuade China.
Foreign ministers of the Group of Seven countries have called on China not to follow through with the legislation.