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China Is Pushing Through a Controversial National Security Law for Hong Kong. Here’s What to Know

8 minute read

Chinese authorities announced on Thursday plans to bypass Hong Kong’s legislature to enact a national security law that pro-democracy campaigners say is aimed at cracking down on dissent in the city.

A motion to enable the drafting of the law—which targets secession, sedition, terrorism and foreign interference in Hong Kong—was brought before the National People’s Congress (NPC), China’s lawmaking body, at its annual meeting in Beijing on Friday.

“National security is the bedrock underpinning a country’s stability,” NPC spokesman Zhang Yesui told media in Beijing on Thursday. “Safeguarding national security serves the fundamental interests of all Chinese people, including our Hong Kong compatriots.”

The introduction of the legislation has sparked fear and outrage from pro-democracy figures in Hong Kong, who say that Beijing has reneged on promises made it made when it took back the former British colony in 1997. Hong Kong was guaranteed a high level of autonomy and an independent judiciary for a period of 50 years under a political model dubbed “one country, two systems.”

“This is the end of Hong Kong. This is the end of one country, two systems. Make no mistake about it,” pro-democracy lawmaker Dennis Kwok told TIME.

Here’s what to know about the contentious national security law.

What is it?

Under Article 23 of Hong Kong’s Basic Law, the mini-constitution governing the territory, the Hong Kong government must enact laws to prohibit acts like treason, secession, sedition, and subversion against the Chinese government and the theft of state secrets. The local government’s failure to get such laws through the legislature is the reason that Beijing now takes matters into its own hands.

When the Hong Kong government attempted to introduce national security legislation in 2003, an estimated 500,000 people turned out to protest against the bill on July 1, 2003—the largest protest the city had seen since its handover from the U.K. The bill was eventually shelved.

Hong Kong National Security 2003
Trams sit stranded as thousands of people block the streets in a huge protest march against a controversial anti-subversion law known as Article 23 in Hong Kong on July 1, 2003.Peter Parks—AFP/Getty Images

Since then, the city’s government hasn’t attempted to introduce the legislation again, although pro-Beijing politicians have called for its revival on several occasions. Hong Kong’s embattled leader, Chief Executive Carrie Lam, has repeatedly said that passing the bill would require the right timing and conditions.

Pressure to enact the bill has increased since widespread unrest erupted in June 2019.

Why does Beijing want to pass this now?

Experts say that Beijing has grown weary of waiting for the local government to enact national security legislation.

“I think they have lost patience that Article 23 can be passed by the Legislative Council,” Willy Lam, an adjunct professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s Center for China Studies, tells TIME. “This is a direct way of imposing a national security law on Hong Kong.”

Last year’s protests have also increased Beijing’s desire to crack down in Hong Kong. The often violent demonstrations—which began over an extradition bill that would have allowed suspected criminals to face trial in mainland China—paralyzed much of the city throughout the second half of 2019.

An editorial published on Thursday by the state-run China Daily said that the law will act as a deterrent to further protests: “The introduction of the legislation will provide the legal basis for concrete actions to check the escalation of violence in [Hong Kong], and act as a deterrent to expedite the restoration of public order.”

Last year’s protesters mostly focused on getting the extradition bill withdrawn, fearing that it would be used to round up dissidents in the territory. They also called for Lam’s ouster and an independent investigation of police behavior during the protests. But some fringe groups have called for independence from China and the idea of secession has been broadly debated. “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our time,” a phrase first used by jailed Hong Kong separatist Edward Leung, became a popular protest slogan.

Liberate Hong Kong
A demonstrator holds a banner reading "Liberate Hong Kong, Revolution of our Time" during a protest in Hong Kong on April 29, 2020.Justin Chin—Bloomberg/Getty Images

Chinese authorities have on multiple occasions accused “foreign forces” of being behind the unrest.

“Necessary measures must be taken—in accordance with the law—to prevent, stop and punish foreign and overseas forces using Hong Kong to conduct separatist, subversion, infiltration and damaging behavior,” according to a document released by a Chinese government spokesman on Friday.

Beijing’s concern has taken on a new urgency with the deterioration of relations with Washington. The sight of Hong Kong protesters waving the Stars and Stripes at protests has provoked anger and dismay among many mainland Chinese.

Why is it a big deal?

Critics argue that the introduction of the legislation spells the death of Hong Kong’s unique political model.

“Today I think is the saddest day in Hong Kong history,” pro-democracy lawmaker Tanya Chan said at a Thursday night press conference. “It confirms one country, one system.”

Pro-democracy lawmaker Claudia Mo tells TIME the legislation, enacted outside of Hong Kong’s own legislative process, is the “last nail in [the] coffin” for Hong Kong’s autonomy.

Experts say that the legislation will surely encroach on the freewheeling city’s freedoms, which have already been backsliding. For example, press freedom has been on the decline and several activists critical of Beijing have been denied entry to Hong Kong in recent months.

Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a professor of political science at Hong Kong Baptist University, tells TIME there are likely to be serious implications across Hong Kong’s civil society—from local activists to expatriates and NGOs.

“The big question is whether it’s going to narrow civil liberties, public freedoms, political freedoms even more—are we moving from a hybrid system which we’ve had since the handover to a more authoritarian system?” asks Cabestan.

China has used its own national security laws to crack down on activists, journalists, lawyers and other human rights defenders. For example, Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo, who spoke out on issues like democracy and human-rights, was jailed in 2009 on charges of “inciting subversion against state power.”

Critics of the proposed law say that it will have a chilling effect on dissenting voices.

“It will be used to silence people, the whole opposition, both the moderate section and the radical one,” pro-democracy politician Eddie Chu tells TIME. “This national security ordinance will be used as a tool to threaten ordinary citizens and to criminalize those who dare to voice out.”

Chu adds that the national security legislation will essentially force Hong Kong to accept China’s law enforcement and the legal system. “All the things we worry that are happening to human rights activists in mainland China will happen right in Hong Kong.”

What happens next?

China’s National People’s Congress is expected to vote on the motion at the end of its annual session, likely to be around May 28. Although details of the new legislation still need to be ironed out, the the draft could be approved for promulgation in Hong Kong by the end of the next meeting of the NPC Standing Committee, which could be as early as June, according to the South China Morning Post.

It’s unclear if the news will spark another wave of mass demonstrations, although small protests have been begun cropping up again in recent weeks as coronavirus cases dwindle in the city. Some small groups of protesters gathered in various locations around the city to protest on Friday.

“It might be difficult for the pro-democracy politicians to arouse the passion of ordinary people to hit the streets in protest,” says Willy Lam, the Chinese University of Hong Kong professor. “I think a proportion of people are resigned to the inevitable.”

What is clear is that the legislation is likely to fundamentally change Hong Kong’s relationship with the United States. In November 2019, after almost six months of pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, President Donald Trump signed into law bipartisan legislation aimed at safeguarding Hong Kong’s civil rights and freedoms. The Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act links the financial hub’s special trade status to continued autonomy from Beijing.

The act requires an annual assessment for Hong Kong to continue to qualify for Washington’s favorable trading terms. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in early May that the first assessment would be delayed until after the May 22 NPC meeting, to take into account any actions that might effect Hong Kong.

The U.S. on Thursday night issued a stern warning to China against imposing the law on Hong Kong, saying a high-degree of autonomy and respect for human rights were key to preserving the enclave’s special status. “Any effort to impose national security legislation that does not reflect the will of the people of Hong Kong would be highly destabilizing, and would be met with strong condemnation from the United States and the international community,” State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said in emailed comments.

But experts say international pressure isn’t going to change Beijing’s mind. “It’s not going to have any impact on Beijing’s policy towards Hong Kong,” says Cabestan. I think they’ve made their decision.”

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Write to Amy Gunia / Hong Kong at amy.gunia@time.com