China approves proposal for Hong Kong security law that curtails its autonomy

The law would ban all “activities” in Hong Kong that endanger national security.

HONG KONG -- China’s National People’s Congress endorsed with thunderous applause a controversial new law to ban all “activities” in Hong Kong that endanger China’s national security at the closing session of its annual parliamentary meeting in Beijing Thursday.

The yet to be drafted law will ultimately be enacted in Hong Kong by decree, bypassing the local lawmaking process, where the Asian financial center is supposed to have a high degree of autonomy from Beijing under the "One Country, Two Systems" arrangement put in place when the former British colony was handed back to China.

For the past year, Hong Kong has been rocked with protests that became increasingly violent and anti-Beijing toward the end of 2019. While the COVID-19 pandemic has kept the unrest largely off the streets until recently, Beijing has signaled that it has lost all patience for dissent in the city.

In introducing the proposal to a vote, the preamble reads, “In recent years, the national security risks of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region have become prominent, and various illegal activities such as 'Hong Kong independence,' splitting the country, and violent terrorist activities have seriously endangered the sovereignty, unity, and territorial integrity of the country.”

The proposal for the law was approved in China’s rubber-stamp parliament 2,878 votes to one, just hours after U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Congress that Hong Kong was "no longer autonomous from China" setting in place the possibility of ending the special treatment the trading hub had enjoyed under U.S. law.

Over 1,300 American companies have offices in Hong Kong and the city is home to roughly 85,000 American citizens. Despite having been largely spared the direct impacts of the U.S.-China trade war, the city has been increasingly caught in between Beijing and Washington as their relationship continues to crater in the wake of the pandemic.

There is no actual law yet and the language of the proposal remains broad, but Hong Kong residents and even the Hong Kong government will have little say in the process. The city only has a sole delegate, Tam Yiu-chung, in China’s top lawmaker body, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, which is expected to convene in June to hash out the specific language of the law and approve it.

On the sidelines of the meetings this past week, Tam has tried to reassure Hong Kong residents, telling them they can express their views to the NPC via an online platform. It is unclear whether those views will be fully taken into account as Beijing has signaled it wants to fast track the law. Observers believe the law will likely be in place sometime over the summer ahead of the Hong Kong legislative elections in September, where the pro-democracy camp is hoping for a big win.

Since the announcement, Beijing and its proxies have been trying to reassure Hong Kong residents that the law will only affect a small targeted portion of Hong Kong. Yet over the past week alone, the language of the proposal was expanded in scope to include groups and organizations in addition to individuals who engaged in acts and activities of sedition, secession and foreign interference.

Issues that will need to be clarified are whether those charged with the new law will be tried in Hong Kong or the mainland and whether local judges with foreign passports would be able to preside over cases?

There is another hotly debated provision in the proposal that allows mainland Chinese security agents to operate openly in Hong Kong for the first time. Hong Kong maintains a separate legal system to the mainland, so will these security agents adhere to locals laws?

Hong Kong legal scholar Johannes Chan told Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK) Thursday that it would be naive to believe that proposed law would only affect “a small group of people.”

“In China they never really define what exactly is 'national security,’" Chan said in the interview, “So the law could change according to political expediency or political necessity.”

The proposed law has brought street protests back onto the streets of Hong Kong in recent days but they have been met with heavy police presence. Hong Kong Police arrested over 300 protestors across the city on Wednesday.