China released a sweeping blueprint Saturday to tighten its control over Hong Kong, revealing plans to establish a security agency in the territory to help Beijing extinguish challenges to its power after months of unrest.
The planned national security law for Hong Kong also gives the territory’s chief official, who must answer to Beijing, the power to appoint which judges will hear such security cases, eroding the autonomy of the city’s independent judiciary.
The announcement drew immediate protests from opposition leaders who warned that it would imperil the rule of law in Hong Kong, a global financial center with greater freedoms than in mainland China.
The proposed law is a pillar of President Xi Jinping’s push to subdue political strife in Hong Kong, the sole part of China that has loudly defied his drive to entrench authoritarian control. Opposition from the United States, Britain, and other Western countries appears unlikely to derail that effort.
The details released by the official Xinhua News Agency on Saturday suggested that the law would greatly magnify the Chinese government’s ability to extinguish political opposition in Hong Kong, which sustained monthslong street protests there last year that often flared into clashes with the police. The law would also allow Beijing to override the city’s local laws.
“This is a dramatic change in the administration of justice in Hong Kong, and it gives central authorities control over Hong Kong that was never anticipated” when Britain returned the territory to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, said Jerome Cohen, a New York University law professor and Council on Foreign Relations senior fellow.
Defying some expectations in Hong Kong, Chinese lawmakers — meeting as the National People’s Congress Standing Committee — did not vote to approve the law Saturday. Even so, Chinese news media and law experts have said that the government is eager to bring the law into force quickly.
Hong Kong’s opposition politicians said the law would seriously erode the city’s cherished judicial independence and rights to protest and free speech. Chinese security forces already operate secretively in Hong Kong, but the new law would expand and formalize their presence.
“This will hollow out Hong Kong, as far as I could see. This new law can simply mean anything Beijing wants it to mean,” said Claudia Mo, a pro-democracy lawmaker in the Hong Kong legislature. Beijing “used to be quite insistent about judicial independence in Hong Kong,” she said.
“Now they are taking off even that facade.”
The announcement of such far-reaching changes may reignite the huge street marches seen in Hong Kong last year, which demonstrated the breadth of anti-government sentiment. They have since dwindled in part because of the coronavirus pandemic and increased police pressure, and so far, both the virus and tougher policing appear to have sapped the willingness of residents to take to the streets again.
Tam Yiu-chung, a Hong Kong member of the Chinese legislature’s top committee, told reporters that the authorities in Beijing would only directly intervene in “exceptional” circumstances, such as if unrest turned into war or otherwise went “completely out of control.”
In the wake of monthslong protests in Hong Kong last year over a proposed extradition bill, Chinese Communist Party leaders in October demanded steps to “safeguard national security” in the territory, which retained its own legal system after its return to Chinese sovereignty.
Last month, the full, annual session of the National People’s Congress, China’s party-controlled legislature, nearly unanimously passed a resolution that authorized its Standing Committee to impose the security legislation on Hong Kong.
The Xinhua statement said that basic civil liberties like freedom of speech and freedom of assembly will be protected. Critics have scoffed.
The explanation of the national security law for Hong Kong included other key points:
The legislation will order the Hong Kong government to “strengthen oversight and management” of schools and associations in national security matters, suggesting the law could be used to try to stifle campus unrest.
The law will require Hong Kong to establish its own national security commission, in parallel to the central government’s security apparatus, and Beijing will assign at least one adviser.
China will establish its own national security arm in Hong Kong, separate from the territory’s own security commission, to “collect and analyze” intelligence and handle certain cases.
The national security law must always prevail if it comes into conflict with local Hong Kong laws.