China has launched an aggressive new challenge to Hong Kong’s autonomy by proposing national security laws that would bar subversion, separatism or acts of foreign interference against the central government.
The move is one of the most overt breaches yet of an agreement with the UK to preserve the territory’s autonomy until 2047, and appears to be aimed at quashing anti-government protests in Hong Kong that began last June.
Pro-democracy activists have accused the ruling Communist Party of China (CPC) of exploiting the coronavirus pandemic to clamp down on future activism while the rest of the world is distracted.
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What are the new laws?
The draft leglisation was presented to lawmakers at a meeting of Beijing’s top political advisory body, ahead of the opening today of the National People’s Congress - China’s annual rubber-stamp session of parliament, which has been delayed this year by the global health crisis.
The proposed laws would “prevent, stop and punish any act to split the country, subvert state power, organise and carry out terrorist activities and other behaviours that seriously endanger national security”, reports China’s state-run Xinhua News Agency.
The legislation would also ban “activities of foreign and external forces to interfere” in the affairs of Hong Kong.
Once enacted, the new controls “could effectively subvert Hong Kong’s remaining freedoms and bring it under full Chinese control”, says The New York Times.
And the reaction?
Hong Kong’s stock market has had its worst day in almost five years following the unveiling of the controversial national security law bill.
The financial hub’s Hang Seng index had tumbled by 5.56% by the close of trading today, its biggest decline since July 2015, while the territory’s property sector sub-index slumped by 8%, the largest such drop since 2008.
News of China’s plan has also “prompted broad international condemnation and raised the prospect of further unrest”, says The Guardian.
Donald Trump told White House reporters on Thursday that the US would react “very strongly” against the move, while the last British governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten, described the new laws as a “comprehensive assault on the city’s autonomy, rule of law, and fundamental freedoms”.
Meanwhile, Hong Kong’s opposition leaders warned that the new controls would spell the “end” of the territory autonomy.
“This is the end of Hong Kong, this is the end of ‘One Country, Two Systems,’ make no mistake about it,” Civic Party politician Dennis Kwok told Time magazine.
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Why has China done this now?
One possible reason for China’s announcement was “the reluctance of Hong Kong’s own legislature to enact toughened security laws”, amid fears that such a move “could incite even bigger anti-Beijing protests”, The New York Times suggests.
Another possible catalyst is the gradual resurgence of street protests after the territory’s coronavirus lockdown temporarily derailed the movement, the newspaper says.
China’s action may “spark fresh protests in Hong Kong”, predicts The Straits Times.
“Beijing is attempting to silence Hong Kongers’ critical voices with force and fear,” pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong tweeted on Friday. “Deep down protesters know, we insist not because we are strong, but because we have no other choice.”
Neighbouring Taiwan’s government has urged Beijing not to lead the former British colony into “bigger turmoil” by bringing in the law.
The move may also “aggravate China’s worsening relations with the United States, which has long criticised China over the erosion of Hong Kong’s autonomy”, says The New York Times.
All the same, Chinese President Xi Jinping “stands to benefit” from the move internally, according to the Financial Times.
“The resulting furore will distract attention from awkward questions about his handling of the early stages of the pandemic,” the newspaper argues.
“The move will also embolden a nationalist Chinese public that has little sympathy for Hong Kong’s front-line pro-democracy protesters - and even less for a US president they perceive as a bully intent on denying China’s ascent to its rightful place on the global stage.”
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