A Hong Kong protester waves a black flag on a street outside the Legislative Council ahead of the 22nd anniversary of the city's handover to China on July 1, 2019.
Anthony Kwan—Getty Images
May 22, 2020 7:49 AM EDT

Beijing’s latest plan to crack down on dissent in Hong Kong by passing controversial national security legislation has shocked democracy advocates in the semi-autonomous city, and elicited swift rebuke from Washington.

Calls for flash mobs appeared on protest-oriented social media channels Friday in response to the proposal, an indication that the sometimes-violent mass demonstrations that have lulled amid the coronavirus pandemic could soon reemerge.

Activists expressed fears for China’s freest city after the draft bill, which would insert new security measures into the territory’s mini-constitution, was submitted Friday for deliberations at the annual meeting of the National People’s Congress (NPC), a rubber-stamp legislature.

“Beijing is attempting to silence Hong Kongers’ critical voices with force and fear,” pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong tweeted. “Deep down protesters know, we insist not because we are strong, but because we have no other choice.”

NPC spokesperson Zhang Yesui called changes to Hong Kong’s national security framework “absolutely necessary” during a press briefing ahead of the legislature’s opening Thursday, according to state media. The proposal follows after unrest seized the financial hub throughout the second half of 2019, posing an enormous challenge to Beijing’s authority.

“National security is the bedrock underpinning the stability of the country and serves the fundamental interests of all Chinese people, including Hong Kong compatriots,” Zhang said.

‘Saddest day in Hong Kong’s history’

The exact effects of the law are not yet clear, but pro-democracy figures fear the move will pave the way for Beijing to further curtail Hong Kong’s autonomy.

“I think it is the saddest day in Hong Kong’s history,” pro-democracy lawmaker Tanya Chan said.

Wong criticized Beijing’s decision to bypass Hong Kong’s legislature and directly enact highly controversial legislation on the territory.

“Beijing’s move is a direct retaliation on #hongkongers’ efforts to arouse awareness over the past one year” he tweeted.

“#HongKong needs the world right now,” he added.

Nathan Law, another pro-democracy activist, says the legislation being debated in Beijing will add fuel to the temporarily dormant protests.

“It will only reignite the movement,” he tells TIME.

When news of the proposal broke on Thursday night, a handful of protesters popped up in a luxury shopping mall in the heart of the city’s retail center. “Hong Kong independence is the only way out,” they chanted.

Civil Human Rights Front (CHRF), the group that convened the largely peaceful million-strong marches last summer, noted that it remains difficult to gather with social distancing measures in place amid the coronavirus. But it called for two million people to stand up once protest action is organized.

On Friday, police stopped pan-democratic lawmakers on an impromptu march against the national security legislation, citing a coronavirus-related ban on gatherings of more than eight people.

‘We’ll address that issue very strongly’

The new law threatens to exacerbate tensions with the Trump Administration, which has already warned it could revoke Hong Kong’s special economic status if Beijing is perceived to be curtailing the city’s autonomy. Hong Kong enjoys freedoms that distinguish it from the mainland, including freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and an independent judiciary, that were guaranteed under a “one country, two systems” policy after the former British colony retroceded to China in 1997.

Speaking to reporters as he left the White House Thursday, President Donald Trump said that if China passes the new security legislation, “we’ll address that issue very strongly.” He did not elaborate on what actions might be taken.

But analysts expressed doubt as to how much impact the U.S. response could have.

“I don’t think the U.S. has much leverage as far as Hong Kong is concerned,” says Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a political-science professor at Hong Kong Baptist University. But, he adds, the Administration will “certainly” react if the NPC pushes the new measures through.

“Beijing is worried that Hong Kong is becoming a base of subversion. That’s why they’re in a hurry to pass this legislation,” Cabestan tells TIME. “Right now, Beijing is in crisis mode,” with the virus, with deteriorating U.S. relations and with discontent still simmering in Hong Kong.

“We’re in a new Cold War,” he adds.

Hong Kong has increasingly emerged as the latest front in the intensifying U.S.-China showdown.

On Thursday, two U.S. Senators introduced a bill that would sanction Chinese Communist Party officials and entities that are involved in enacting the proposed national security law in Hong Kong. Democrat Chris Van Hollen and and Republican Pat Toomey said the bill aims ” to defend Hong Kong’s autonomy against increasingly brazen interference from the Chinese Community Party.”

“Last year, millions of people in Hong Kong took to the streets to demand democratic freedoms,” Van Hollen said in a statement. “Despite China’s brutal crackdown, and repeated attempts to erode Hong Kong’s political liberties, these protests have persisted.”

Chinese officials have repeatedly accused “foreign forces” backed by the U.S. of fomenting the sometimes violent unrest that paralyzed Hong Kong in the second half of 2019. Initially, the protests were sparked by a proposed extradition law that would have allowed criminal suspects to be extradited for trial to the mainland, where courts are controlled by the Community Party. But after Hong Kong withdrew the bill, the movement continued, snowballing to encompass broader demands including full democratic elections and independent inquiry into police actions.

In November, with the anti-government movement reaching a fever pitch, Trump signed the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act into law after it was passed Congress almost unanimously. It requires the U.S. government to make an annual assessment of whether Hong Kong remains sufficiently independent from Beijing to warrant continued preferential trade privileges. Hong Kong was granted special trade status under the 1992 United States-Hong Kong Policy Act, which says the city should continue to be treated as a “separate territory” from the Chinese mainland “in economic and trade matters.”

Earlier this month, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced a delay to the inaugural report in order to see if Beijing took any action against the territory during the week-long NPC gathering.

“We’re closely watching what’s going on there,” he said Wednesday.

Hong Kong is required under Article 23 of the Basic Law, its mini-constitution, to pass laws that prohibit treason, secession, sedition and subversion against the Chinese government. A previous effort to enact similar legislation in 2003 triggered massive backlash and was withdrawn after hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets in protest.

But in the face of simmering discontent in the territory, Beijing has increasingly advocated for sweeping national security measures, especially following radical protest escalation that it has likened to terrorism.

A commentary in state-run China Daily on Friday made it clear that the proposed national security law is meant to dissuade further unrest in the enclave. “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,” it said.

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam has indicated that despite igniting unprecedented backlash with her effort to pass controversial legislation last year, she would be willing to “fully cooperate” on the national security laws and ensure they are passed as soon as possible. In a statement issued Friday, she said that protesters who had burned the Chinese national flag, vandalized the national emblem and called for foreign governments’ to interfere had “crossed the baseline of ‘One Country,’ sabotaging the relationship between the Central People’s Government and [Hong Kong].”

While protesters are vowing to continue their resistance, it remains unclear how or when they might respond, and whether the looming effort to stifle the movement will force a shift in tactics. Police have said that over 8,300 demonstrators between the ages of 11 and 84 have already been arrested in relation to the protests since June last year.

Write to Laignee Barron at Laignee.Barron@time.com.

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