China’s parliament passed national security legislation for Hong Kong on Tuesday, setting the stage for the most radical changes to the former British colony’s way of life since it returned to Chinese rule almost exactly 23 years ago.
State media is expected to publish details of the law – which comes in response to last year’s often-violent pro-democracy protests in the city and aims to tackle subversion, terrorism, separatism and collusion with foreign forces – later on Tuesday.
Amid fears the legislation will crush the global financial hub’s rights and freedoms, and reports that the heaviest penalty would be life imprisonment, prominent pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong said he would quit his Demosisto group.
“It marks the end of Hong Kong that the world knew before,” Wong said on Twitter.
The legislation pushes Beijing further along a collision course with the United States, Britain and other Western governments, which have said it erodes the high degree of autonomy the city was granted at its July 1, 1997, handover.
The United States began eliminating Hong Kong’s special status under U.S. law on Monday, halting defense exports and restricting the territory’s access to high technology products.
Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam, speaking at her regular weekly news conference, said it was not appropriate for her to comment on the legislation as the meeting in Beijing was still going on, but she threw a jibe at the United States.
“No sort of sanctioning action will ever scare us,” Lam said.
Lau Siu-kai, vice-president of a think-tank under the Beijing cabinet’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, told Reuters the internationally criticized law was passed unanimously with 162 votes.
The editor-in-chief of the Global Times, a tabloid published by the People’s Daily, the official newspaper of China’s ruling Communist Party, said on Twitter the heaviest penalty under the law was life imprisonment, without providing details.
Authorities in Beijing and Hong Kong have repeatedly said the legislation is aimed at a few “troublemakers” and will not affect rights and freedoms, nor investor interests.
It comes into force as soon as it is gazetted in Hong Kong, which is seen as imminent.
This month, China’s official Xinhua news agency unveiled some of the law’s provisions, including that it would supersede existing Hong Kong legislation and that the power of interpretation belongs to China’s parliament top committee.
Beijing is expected to set up a national security office in Hong Kong for the first time to “supervise, guide and support” the city government. Beijing could also exercise jurisdiction on certain cases.
Judges for security cases are expected to be appointed by the city’s chief executive. Senior judges now allocate rosters up through Hong Kong’s independent judicial system.
It is unclear which specific activities are to be made illegal, how precisely they are defined or what punishment they carry.
Police have banned this year’s July 1 rally on the anniversary of the 1997 handover, citing coronavirus restrictions. It is unclear if attending the rally would constitute a national security crime if the law came into force by Wednesday.
South China Morning Post, citing “police insiders,” said about 4,000 officers will be on stand-by on Wednesday to handle any unrest if people defy the ban.
Hong Kong is one of many developing conflicts between China and the United States, on top of trade, the South China Sea and the coronavirus pandemic.
Britain has said the security law would violate China’s international obligations and its handover agreement.
A Japanese official said that if China had passed the law, it was “regrettable.”
Democratically ruled and Chinese-claimed Taiwan said it “strongly condemns” the legislation, while the European Union has said it could take China to the International Court of Justice in The Hague over it.
China has hit back at the outcry, denouncing “interference” in internal affairs.
Hong Kong stocks were up 0.9% on Tuesday, in line with Asian markets.
(Additional reporting by Yanni Chow and Carol Mang in Hong Kong Editing by Michael Perry, Robert Birsel)