Chinese President Xi Jinping signed a landmark national security law for Hong Kong, a sweeping attempt to quell dissent that has already drawn US retaliation and could endanger the city’s appeal as a financial hub.
The legislation published late Tuesday includes sentences as long as life in prison for the most serious category of crimes, including subversion of state power and collusion with foreign forces. It took effect immediately. U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he was “deeply concerned” about the move while the Trump administration vowed “strong actions” if Beijing didn’t reverse course.
Hong Kong’s business community, democracy activists and Beijing-appointed leaders alike were largely observers as Chinese lawmakers completed the carefully orchestrated rollout of the legislation that will shape the city’s future. Lam, who had defended the law even as she acknowledged she hadn’t seen a full draft, said the local police force and Department of Justice were ready to enforce it.
“I am confident that after the implementation of the National Security Law, the social unrest which has troubled Hong Kong people for nearly a year will be eased and stability will be restored,” Lam said.
The measure to punish acts of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces comes on the eve of the anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to Chinese rule in 1997. The organizer of an annual July 1 march that drew more than half a million people last year lost a last-minute appeal Tuesday to hold the event after being denied permission by police, who cited coronavirus risk and the potential for violence.
Some in the pro-democracy camp vowed to march regardless, and despite the threat of arrest. Prominent activists, including former student leaders Joshua Wong and Agnes Chow, cut ties with political groups Tuesday in an apparent attempt to avoid implicating each other.
“Laws that would have fundamental differences to our way of life have been passed thousands of miles away by people we know nothing about, with contents of this legislation which we know nothing about,” pro-democracy lawmaker Dennis Kwok said at an evening briefing. “That’s no way to treat a civilized, educated international city such as Hong Kong, but this is it.
The way they’ve done it is the most ruthless, undignified assault on the freedom, human rights and the rule of law of Hong Kong.”
The new law put limits on civil liberties and Hong Kong’s independent judicial system, which has helped attract hundreds of international companies to Hong Kong. President Donald Trump warned last month the US would start rolling back Hong Kong’s preferential trade status, while the U.K. and Taiwan have offered new paths to residency for the city’s 7.5 million inhabitants.
The U.K., which handed Hong Kong back after a 1984 treaty promising to preserve its “high degree of autonomy,” described the law’s passage as a “grave step.” Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga meanwhile called the action “regrettable.” On Monday, the Trump administration made it harder to export sensitive American technology to Hong Kong, suspending regulations allowing special treatment to the territory over dual-use technologies like carbon fiber used to make both golf clubs and missile components.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said no country had the right to interfere in Hong Kong’s affairs, threatening “necessary retaliatory measures” against the US “The US wants to use the so-called sanctions to obstruct China’s legislative process to safeguard national security in Hong Kong. Such an attempt stands no chance of succeeding,” Zhao said.
The law brings yet more uncertainty as Hong Kong faces its deepest recession on record after last year’s protests and the global pandemic. Unemployment has risen to a 15-year high, while investors are putting money elsewhere. Some expatriates and Hong Kong residents have said they’re considering leaving the city.
Hong Kong’s freedoms have become increasingly tenuous as Xi grows more confident in China’s ability to withstand foreign pressure and Hong Kong protesters embrace more radical positions such as independence. Beijing’s steady moves to integrate the city boiled over into historic and sometimes violent protests last year, after Lam attempted to pass a bill allowing extraditions to the mainland.
Chinese officials have said the security law is necessary to ensure peace following last year’s chaos, which included vandalism of subway stations, regular use of Molotov cocktails and a brief occupation of Hong Kong’s international airport. NPC Chairman Li Zhanshu, the Communist Party’s No. 3 leader, said in a speech that the law was compatible with Hong Kong’s legal system and would “punish extremely few while protecting the majority.”
Surveys show a majority of Hong Kong residents oppose the law. The American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong said more than 80% of the companies it surveyed were concerned or very concerned about the legislation — although some companies have begun to endorse the law after HSBC Holdings Plc came under pressure for remaining silent and backed it.
Opposition lawmakers have expressed concern the law will be used to bar them from seeking office in a legislative election in September.
China didn’t publish the full draft law or allow a public debate, which is required under the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini-constitution. The process also bypassed Hong Kong’s elected Legislative Council.
The new law goes further toward revising the “one country, two systems” framework designed to protect Hong Kong’s liberal institutions and Common Law legal system. The legislation will let Chinese security agents operate in Hong Kong, allow China to prosecute some cases and give Lam the power to pick judges to hear national security matters.
“You have in Hong Kong the Common Law system and imposing on it what passes as the law in China will produce chaos which will be intolerable for the people of Hong Kong and eventually will be intolerable for business, as well,” Chris Patten, the territory’s last colonial governor, told Bloomberg Television on Monday. “Hong Kong represents all those aspects of liberal democracy which Xi Jinping so hates.”