×

China’s National People’s Congress (NPC) on Thursday gave its approval to a controversial draft security law that will apply in Hong Kong.

The draft law is intended to prevent any threat to Beijing’s authority in the city through secession, subversion, terrorism or foreign interference. It may allow mainland security forces to operate within Hong Kong, and is widely expected to curb personal liberties, such as freedom of the press, freedom of speech and freedom of assembly.

“There is a well-substantiated fear that the new security law will be used to suppress freedom of expression and curtail the activities of human rights defenders,” said Frederick Rawski, Asia & the Pacific director of the International Commission of Jurists.

Hong Kong’s chief executive Carrie Lam insisted that the security law will help the territory regain stability, not hold it back. “The legislation to be enacted for the HKSAR to safeguard national security aims to prevent, curb and sanction an extremely small minority of criminals… It will not affect the legitimate rights and freedoms enjoyed by Hong Kong residents,” she said in a statement on Thursday afternoon.

The draft will now go to the Standing Committee of the Communist Party and could become law by August. It would then be inserted into the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, and be promulgated. That means the new law would take effect having bypassed Hong Kong’s legislature, known as Legco.

Revealed less than a week ago, the plans to force the security bill through in this fashion appear to show that Beijing has lost patience with the Lam government’s inability, or unwillingness, to win majority support for its own security law.

September elections for Legco membership represent another reason for rushing through the legislation without a vote. Opinion polls show that the pro-Beijing camp will likely lose its majority to the cluster of pro-democracy parties.

Hong Kong ceased to be a British colony in 1997, and returned to full Chinese sovereignty. According to the Sino-British Joint Declaration, a U.N.-registered treaty, Hong Kong is designated as a Special Administrative Region. It should retain a high degree of autonomy and maintain its lifestyle and economic system for 50 years, until 2047. This arrangement is known as “One Country, Two Systems.”

The Basic Law requires the Hong Kong government to enact its own local version of a national security law. But after half a million people marched against such proposals in 2003, the authorities backed down. And no Hong Kong leader has since dared.

The NPC bill, and a Legco debate on respect for China’s national anthem, caused thousands of people to take to the streets of Hong Kong on Wednesday in protest. They were met with brute force by a Hong Kong police force that used water cannon, tear gas, pepper spray and irritant projectiles against the crowds. They arrested 360 people, including many of school age in school uniform.

The reaction on an international level was just as dramatic. Hours before the NPC vote, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called it a “disastrous decision” as he sent a certificate to Congress saying that Hong Kong is no longer autonomous from China and no longer warrants special treatment under U.S. law.

“No reasonable person can assert today that Hong Kong maintains a high degree of autonomy from China, given facts on the ground,” said Pompeo. “While the United States once hoped that free and prosperous Hong Kong would provide a model for authoritarian China, it is now clear that China is modeling Hong Kong after itself.”

U.S. President Donald Trump may now take follow-up action. These range from sanctions on individuals or organizations who have promoted the new law, through to revoking some of the tariff and trade privileges which Hong Kong, separately from China, has enjoyed since 1997.

Alternatively, Trump may choose to wait. However, the list of grievances between the two superpowers is a growing one. It includes: a coronavirus blame game; security and territorial disputes in the South China Sea; a U.S. pushback against Chinese technology success; legal actions against controversial phone equipment supplier Huawei; the expulsion of journalists from operating in each other’s country; a threat to bar Chinese companies from U.S. stock exchanges; and a Phase One trade deal that looks destined never to be followed by a Part Two.

Some commentators have described the growing antipathy as a new Cold War. Hong Kong, once the capital of the Asian entertainment industry, and still clinging in to its role as Asia’s primary financial hub, finds itself at the center of an ice storm.