China plans national security laws for Hong Kong after last year's unrest

China plans national security laws for Hong Kong after last year's unrest

Chinese President Xi Jinping and officials attend for the opening session of CPPCC in Beijing
Chinese President Xi Jinping and officials attend for the opening session of CPPCC in Beijing. (Photo: REUTERS)

HONG KONG: China's parliament said on Thursday (May 21) it will discuss a proposal for a national security law in Hong Kong at its annual session, in a move likely to stoke unrest in the financial hub.

Beijing has made clear it wants new security legislation passed after the semi-autonomous city was rocked by seven months of massive and sometimes violent protests last year.

The proposal, which will be introduced at the meeting of the National People's Congress that opens Friday, would strengthen "enforcement mechanisms" in the city, the parliament's spokesman Zhang Yesui said.

Article 23 of Hong Kong's mini-constitution, the Basic Law, says the city must enact national security laws to prohibit "treason, secession, sedition (and) subversion" against the Chinese government.

But the clause has never been implemented due to deeply held public fears it would curtail Hong Kong's cherished rights, such as freedom of expression.

Those liberties are unseen on the mainland and are protected by an agreement made before Britain handed Hong Kong back to China in 1997.

Online posts have already emerged urging people to gather to protest on Thursday night and dozens were seen shouting pro-democracy slogans in a shopping mall as riot police stood nearby.

Hong Kong people took to the streets last year, sometimes in their millions, to protest a now-withdrawn Bill that would have allowed extraditions of criminal suspects to mainland China. The movement broadened to include demands for broader democracy amid perceptions that Beijing was tightening its grip over the city.

A protester wearing Guy Fawkes
A protester wearing Guy Fawkes mask celebrates the results of last week's district council elections in the neighbourhood of Wong Tai Sin in Hong Kong, China, on Nov 30, 2019. (Photo: REUTERS/Laurel Chor)

"If Beijing passes the law ... how (far) will civil society resist repressive laws? How much impact will it unleash onto Hong Kong as an international financial centre?" said Ming Sing, political scientist at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

The Hong Kong dollar weakened on the news.

China's parliament, the National People’s Congress, is due to begin its annual session on Friday, after being delayed for months by COVID-19. 

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on May 6 he was delaying the report assessing whether Hong Kong was sufficiently autonomous to warrant Washington's special economic treatment that has helped it remain a world financial centre.

READ: China says Pompeo 'blackmailing' Hong Kong government

The delay was to account for any actions at the National People's Congress, he said.

Tension between the two superpowers has heightened in recent weeks, as they exchanged accusations on the handling of the coronavirus pandemic, souring an already worsening relationship over trade.

BYPASS MECHANISM

A previous attempt by Hong Kong to introduce Article 23 in 2003 was met with mass peaceful protests and shelved.

Hong Kong has a constitutional obligation to enact Article 23 "on its own", but similar laws can be introduced by Beijing separately into an annex of the Basic Law, the city's mini-constitution.

Security personnel stand guard outside the Great Hall of the People before the opening session of C
Security personnel wearing face masks following the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak stand guard outside the Great Hall of the People before the opening session of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) in Beijing, China May 21, 2020. (Photo: REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins)

That legal mechanism could bypass the city's legislature as the laws could be imposed by promulgation by Hong Kong's pro-Beijing government.

"Some people are destroying Hong Kong’s peace and stability. Beijing saw all that has happened," pro-establishment lawmaker Christopher Cheung, who is not part of discussions in Beijing, told Reuters.

"Legislation is necessary and the sooner the better."

National security legislation has been strongly opposed by protesters who argue it could erode the city's freedoms and high degree of autonomy, guaranteed under the "one country, two systems" formula put in place when it returned to Chinese rule.

A senior Western diplomat, who declined to be identified, said the imposition of such laws from China, without any local legislative process, would hurt international perceptions about the city and its economy.

Protesters denounce what they see as the creeping meddling in Hong Kong by China's Communist Party rulers. Beijing denies the charge and blames the West, especially the United States and Britain, for stirring up trouble. 

MORE: Our coverage of the Hong Kong protests

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Source: Agencies/ec

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