Asia Pacific / Politics

‘This is the end’: Hong Kong opposition decries China power grab

Bloomberg

China will improve national security in Hong Kong, Premier Li Keqiang said Friday, a day after Beijing announced dramatic plans to rein in dissent by writing a new law into the city’s charter.

“We will establish sound legal systems and enforcement mechanisms for safeguarding national security in the two special administrative regions, and see that the governments of the two regions fulfill their constitutional responsibilities,” Li said according to prepared remarks. He added that the government would push ahead with a plan to integrate the city with others in southern China.

“This is the end of Hong Kong,” said Dennis Kwok, an opposition lawmaker representing the legal sector. “I foresee that the status of Hong Kong as an international city will be gone very soon.”

The Hong Kong dollar weakened the most in six weeks and an exchange-traded fund that invests in the city’s stocks fell the most in almost two months, as concerns built that China’s measures would revive street protests and potentially prompt the U.S. to reassess the city’s special trading privileges. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has delayed an annual report on whether Hong Kong still enjoys a “high degree of autonomy” from Beijing, telling reporters this week that he was “closely watching what’s going on there.”

The National People’s Congress on Thursday confirmed plans to pass a bill establishing “an enforcement mechanism for ensuring national security” for Hong Kong, without providing details. Chinese lawmakers were preparing to soon pass measures that would curb secession, sedition, foreign interference and terrorism in the former British colony, local media including the South China Morning Post reported Thursday, citing unidentified people.

The law was expected to pass China’s rubber-stamp parliament — delayed from March by the coronavirus outbreak — before the end of its annual session May 28. NPC spokesman Zhang Yesui told a news briefing Thursday that more details would be made public Friday.

The legislation would still require several procedural steps including approval by the NPC’s decision-making Standing Committee, which could come as early as next month, the SCMP said. The move comes before citywide elections in September in which opposition members hoped to gain an unprecedented majority of the Legislative Council.

Although national security laws are required to be passed by Article 23 of the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s miniconstitution, successive governments have failed to pass them, with one effort in 2003 resulting in widespread street demonstrations. This new strategy could potentially allow authorities to skip the local legislative process, although the mechanics of how that would work remained unclear.

“It is absolutely necessary that the country’s top legislature fulfill its obligation to guarantee national security, by strengthening the legal framework with regard to Hong Kong,” the state-run China Daily said in a commentary. “There is nothing untoward in this as all countries attach the utmost significance to national security, and the introduction of such a law will safeguard the long-term stability and prosperity of Hong Kong.”

China's ceremonial parliament will consider legislation that could limit opposition activity in Hong Kong, a spokesperson said Thursday, appearing to confirm speculation that China will sidestep the territory's own legislative body in enacting legislation to crack down on activity Beijing considers subversive. | AP
China’s ceremonial parliament will consider legislation that could limit opposition activity in Hong Kong, a spokesperson said Thursday, appearing to confirm speculation that China will sidestep the territory’s own legislative body in enacting legislation to crack down on activity Beijing considers subversive. | AP

Trump showdown

The move sets up a potential election-year showdown with U.S. President Donald Trump, who has come under pressure in Washington to reconsider the special trading status before the city’s return to Chinese rule under a promise to maintain its liberal financial and political structure. On Thursday, Trump warned that the U.S. would respond to any move to curtail protests and democratic movements in Hong Kong.

“I don’t know what it is because nobody knows yet,” Trump, speaking to reporters as he left the White House on Thursday, said about the possible Chinese actions. “If it happens, we’ll address that issue very strongly.” He didn’t elaborate.

Separately, two U.S. senators have introduced legislation to punish Chinese entities involved in enforcing proposed new security laws in Hong Kong and penalize banks that do business with those entities.

Democrat Chris Van Hollen and Republican Pat Toomey acted in response to what they said was the Chinese Communist Party’s “brazen interference” in Hong Kong’s autonomy.

A spokesman for the Hong Kong government and a spokeswoman for Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s office declined to comment Thursday. Lam, whose legislation allowing extraditions to the mainland ignited unprecedented unrest in the city last year, said this week that she viewed the national security laws as an “important constitutional requirement for the government.”

Chinese and Hong Kong officials have since last year repeatedly denounced violent protests as “near-terrorist acts,” with the police commissioner warning in recent months that the city “may be heading into an era of terrorism.” Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office chief Xia Baolong outlined the government’s plans during a meeting earlier Thursday with Hong Kong representatives, according to the news site HKO1, which was the first to report the proposal.

“National security is the bedrock underpinning the stability of the country,” Zhang, the NPC spokesman, said Thursday. “Safeguarding national security serves the fundamental interests of all Chinese, Hong Kong compatriots included.”

Flashpoint

The proposal from the Hong Kong NPC delegates suggests passing the same security laws by using Article 18, which permits the national legislature to pass laws relating to defense or foreign affairs if, among other things, it believes there is “turmoil within the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region which endangers national unity or security and is beyond the control of the government” or a state of emergency. Laws passed using this method include ones on Chinese nationality, territorial boundaries and diplomatic and consular privileges and immunities.

Scuffles broke out in the Legislative Council this month as pro-democracy lawmakers sought to block Beijing-backed bills, including one criminalizing disrespect for the national anthem. Some protesters have called for demonstrators to surround the legislature to block the second reading of the bill on May 27, almost 11 months after some demonstrators broke into and ransacked the chamber.

“This is them saying, ‘I am calling the shots. I am setting the parameters. Resistance is futile,’” said Joseph Cheng, a retired political science professor and veteran pro-democracy activist. “It’s part of their approach of no concessions, no dialogue.”

The new measure would be compatible with Hong Kong law and wouldn’t impact the city’s guarantee of an independent judiciary, the Hong Kong Economic Times reported, citing a person it didn’t identify. The law would only affect a “small number” of people, the Economic Times said.

Danny Gittings, an academic who wrote the “Introduction to the Hong Kong Basic Law,” said a chief executive could only implement such laws by proclamation if the wording is identical to the Chinese national law. The anthem measure, which was similarly imposed in 2017, still hasn’t been passed by the Legislative Council.

“Even if it’s not a law enforceable in Hong Kong, it could still have a strong symbolic impact,” Gittings said.

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