Chinese government supporters march in Hong Kong on Tuesday (NYT photo)
China passed a contentious new law for Hong Kong on Tuesday that would empower the authorities to crack down on opposition to Beijing, risking deeper rifts with Western governments that have warned about the erosion of freedoms in the territory.
The move is being seen by many as Beijing’s boldest yet to erase the legal firewall between the semi-autonomous territory and the mainland’s authoritarian Communist Party system.
President Xi Jinping signed a presidential order promulgating the law after it was approved by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, the official Xinhua news agency said. It will be added to the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s constitution. Beijing has kept full details of the law — which comes in response to last year’s pro-democracy protests and aims to tackle subversion, terrorism, separatism and collusion with foreign forces — shrouded in secrecy.
Carrie Lam, the city’s leader, said it would come into effect at 11 pm in the night, giving Hong Kong’s 7.5 million people no time to digest the legislation. The law infringes on an arrangement that has made Hong Kong, which China ceded to Britain in 1842 and which ceased being a British colony in 1997, autonomous in many respects. It was approved a day before July 1, the anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover.
The law pushes Beijing further along a collision course with the US, Britain and other Western governments, which have said it erodes the high degree of autonomy the city was granted. The US, already in dispute with China over trade, the South China Sea and the coronavirus, began eliminating Hong Kong’s special status under US law on Monday, halting defence exports and restricting technology access. China said it would retaliate. Britain, European Union, Japan, Taiwan and others have also criticised the legislatiolaw. China has hit back, denouncing “interference” in its internal affairs
Lam, in a video message to the UN Human Rights Council, urged the international community to “respect our country’s right to safeguard national security”. She said the law would not undermine the city’s autonomy or its independent judiciary. Authorities in Beijing and Hong Kong have repeatedly said the legislation is aimed at a few “troublemakers”.
In their most severe form, crimes will be punishable with life in prison. Punishments otherwise largely go up to 10 years. Properties related to crimes could be frozen or confiscated. The legislation will supersede existing Hong Kong laws. Judges for security cases will be appointed by the city’s chief executive. A new national security agency will be set up for the first time and will not be under the jurisdiction of the local government. Those asking foreign countries to sanction, blockade or take other hostile action against Hong Kong or China could be guilty of colluding with foreign forces.