Hong Kong – China confirmed that a proposed national security law would allow Beijing to override Hong Kong’s independent legal system, shedding new light on a move that has stoked tensions with the U.S. and threatens the city’s status as a top financial center.
The proposal said the central government will have jurisdiction over an “extremely small” number of national security cases under “specific circumstances,” according to draft language released on Saturday by the official Xinhua News Agency. It added that China will establish a new bureau in Hong Kong to analyze the security situation, collect intelligence and “lawfully handle national security cases.”
The draft bill also calls for Hong Kong to establish a new committee to protect national security, which will be supervised and accountable to Beijing. The chief executive will oversee the committee, as well as appoint judges to handle criminal cases brought under the law. Authorities in Beijing will have the final say on interpreting the law.
Details of the measures to punish acts of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces in the former British colony had been secret since the broader National People’s Congress approved their drafting on May 28. The NPC Standing Committee began deliberations on the legislation Thursday, after a last-minute announcement that it had been added to the agenda.
The laws will shape the future of Hong Kong, raising questions about the autonomy of a city whose global status is a underpinned by its legal distinction from the mainland. President Xi Jinping’s government decided to bypass the elected local legislature and impose the security laws after a wave of historically large and sometimes violent protests gripped the city last year. Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam expressed her “gratitude” for the measure and said in a statement that her government will give its “full support” for the bill.
The NPC Standing Committee will meet again from June 28-30 in Beijing, Xinhua reported. The proposed agenda reported by Xinhua doesn’t include the Hong Kong security legislation. Still, it could be added later as was the case last week.
The laws have fueled resurgent pro-democracy protests and led the U.S. to threaten to revoke Hong Kong’s special trade status, which has helped maintain the city’s role as a vital financial crossroads between China and the West. Opposition politicians have said China’s move would mark the end of the “one country, two systems” principle that has governed the city since its return to Chinese rule in 1997.
Other key details of the law include:
- The NPC Standing Committee has the power to interpret the law, which would override any local laws that are inconsistent with its provisions.
- The police and judiciary will establish new departments to handle cases under the law, and Lam said preparatory work is already under way.
- Hong Kong must “adopt special measures strengthening oversight and management” of schools and social organizations.
- The national security committee will set up a position of special adviser designated by the central government.
- Hong Kong should “respect and protect human rights” while ensuring national security, and anyone accused has the right to defend themselves.
- Any Hong Kong residents entering elections or taking public positions must sign documents upholding the city’s Basic Law and swearing loyalty “to the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China.”
The fresh details generated alarm among some pro-democracy politicians. Lawmaker Fernando Cheung said the details made clear the Communist Party “has the power to pick whoever they want” and bring them to the mainland to face criminal charges.
“No doubt, this law has immediately turned Hong Kong into a mainland city,” he said. “I don’t see how the international community would feel secure under this law. And I’m sure that there will be an exodus of young professionals in the near future.”
Prominent pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong warned that the draft bill undermined Hong Kong’s legal system and essentially allowed the Communist Party to intervene at will.
“Being one of the prime targets, I will probably be subject to secret trial, black jails, televised confession and tortures,” he said in a string of tweets. “Therefore, I call upon the world to stand with Hong Kong and urge China to withdraw this evil law.”
Some key technical details had yet to be released, such as whether the law will be retroactive. Prison sentences for the four types of crimes would range between three to 10 years and would be largely in line with Hong Kong’s criminal laws, Radio Television Hong Kong reported, citing Tam Yiu-chung, the city’s sole delegate to the Chinese legislative body.
The chief executive would make a call on the “specific circumstances” that would enable China to have jurisdiction, the report also said, citing Tam. Those would be extreme situations beyond the control of the Hong Kong government, or when the city is near a state of war, the report said.
The new bureau set up by the central government in Hong Kong will have a similar status to other agencies in the city that answer to Beijing, said Tian Feilong, associate professor with the Law School of Beihang University. National legislators may solicit opinions on the details released from specific groups such as the Hong Kong Bar Association as part of the consultation process, he said, adding that the law is unlikely to be retroactive.
Hong Kong’s future has become a proxy fight in the battle for dominance between the U.S. and a rising China, with local protesters waving American flags and Beijing officials accusing Washington of acting as a “black hand” behind the unrest. China agreed to preserve the city’s liberal political structure and capitalist economy for at least 50 years in a treaty with the U.K.
Beijing has pressed ahead despite a statement by the Group of Seven foreign ministers Wednesday warning the legislation “would jeopardize the system which has allowed Hong Kong to flourish and made it a success over many years.” Scores of civil society organizations, included Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, urged NPC Chairman Li Zhanshu, the ruling Communist Party’s No. 3 leader, to abandon what they said was a “devastating assault on human rights.”
“China is firmly determined to advance this national security legislation in Hong Kong,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told reporters Thursday, saying foreign governments should “stop meddling in Hong Kong affairs and China’s internal affairs.”
The move means more disruption for a city already facing its deepest recession on record after protests and coronavirus lockdowns kept people in their homes and scared tourists away. Unemployment has risen to a 15-year high, while investors are putting money elsewhere and some expatriates and Hong Kong residents are considering leaving the city.
China’s surprise decision to impose the legislation has left Hong Kong’s pro-democracy camp reeling, with little power to stop its enactment by a local government loyal to Beijing. Opposition lawmakers have expressed concern that the law — and particularly the requirement of a loyalty oath — will be used to bar China’s critics from seeking office as they seek to win a majority in Legislative Council elections set for September.
Lam, who was chosen by a selection committee of 1,200 political insiders and appointed by Beijing, endorsed the legislation early, despite acknowledging she didn’t know what was in it. A poll released by the Hong Kong Public Opinion Program on May 29 showed a majority of residents and 96 percent of democracy supporters opposed the measure.
Allowing the chief executive to “cherry pick judges” for certain cases “is unprecedented in Hong Kong and unheard of across the Common Law world,” said Alvin Yeung, head of the city’s opposition Civic Party and a barrister. “What are the criteria for the chief executive to choose these judges? We don’t know.”