Beijing (AFP) – China imposed a sweeping national security law on Hong Kong Tuesday, a historic move that critics and many western governments fear will smother the finance hub’s freedoms and hollow out its autonomy.
As the law was signed by President Xi Jinping little more than six weeks after it was first unveiled, Beijing described it as a “sword” hanging over the heads of those who endanger national security.
The contents of the law have so far been kept secret from Hong Kong’s 7.5 million inhabitants, sparking alarm, anger and fear.
“It marks the end of Hong Kong that the world knew before,” prominent democracy campaigner Joshua Wong tweeted as his political party Demosisto announced it was disbanding.
“With sweeping powers and ill-defined law, the city will turn into a #secretpolicestate.”
Some Hong Kongers on Tuesday said they were deleting Twitter accounts and scrubbing other social media platforms.
In contrast, former city leader Leung Chun-ying took to Facebook to offer bounties of up to HK$1 million ($130,000) for anyone who could help secure the first prosecutions under the new legislation or track down people who have recently fled the city.
The United States, Britain, the European Union and the United Nations rights watchdog have all voiced fears it could be used to stifle criticism of Beijing, which wields similar laws to crush dissent on the mainland.
The law bypassed Hong Kong’s fractious legislature and comes into effect on Tuesday evening, according to the city’s current leader Carrie Lam.
“The fact that Hong Kong people will only come to know what’s really in this new law after the fact is more than preposterous,” Claudia Mo, an opposition lawmaker, told AFP.
– ‘Fundamental change’ –
As part of the 1997 handover from Britain, Hong Kong was guaranteed certain freedoms — as well as judicial and legislative autonomy — for 50 years in a deal known as “One Country, Two Systems”.
The formula helped to cement the city’s status as a world-class business hub, bolstered by a reliable judiciary and political freedoms unseen on the mainland.
Critics have long accused Beijing of chipping away at that status, but they describe the new security law as the most brazen move yet.
A summary of the law published by the official state news agency Xinhua this month said it would cover subversion, secession, terrorism and colluding with foreign forces.
China’s security agencies will also be able to set up shop publicly in the city for the first time.
And Beijing will have jurisdiction over some cases, toppling the legal firewall that has existed between Hong Kong and the mainland’s party-controlled courts.
Analysts said that even without knowing details, the security law radically restructures the relationship between Beijing and Hong Kong.
“It’s a fundamental change that dramatically undermines both the local and international community’s confidence towards Hong Kong’s “One Country, Two Systems” model and its status as a robust financial centre,” Hong Kong political analyst Dixon Sing told AFP.
– Restore stability –
On the mainland, national security laws are routinely used to jail critics, especially for the vague offence of “subversion”.
Beijing and Hong Kong’s government reject those allegations.
They have said the laws will only target a minority of people, will not harm political freedoms in the city and will restore business confidence after a year of historic pro-democracy protests.
“I urge the international community to respect our country’s right to safeguard national security and Hong Kong people’s aspirations for stability and harmony,” city leader Lam told the UN Human Rights Council in a video message on Tuesday.
Millions took to the streets last year while a hard core of protesters frequently battled police in often violent confrontations that saw more than 9,000 arrested.
Hong Kong banned protests in recent months, citing previous unrest and the coronavirus pandemic, although local transmissions have ended.
Some western nations warned of potential repercussions ahead of the security law’s passing.
However many are also wary of incurring Beijing’s wrath and losing lucrative access to the mainland’s huge economy.
“We deplore this decision,” European Council head Charles Michel told a press conference Tuesday.
Chris Patten, the last British governor of the territory, said in a statement that the decision marked “the end of One Country, Two Systems”.
Washington — which has embarked on a trade war with China — has said the security law means Hong Kong no longer enjoys sufficient autonomy from the mainland to justify special status.
In a largely symbolic move, the United States on Monday ended sensitive defence exports to Hong Kong over the law.
China said it would take unspecified “countermeasures” in response.