US condemns China’s Hong Kong security law

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has condemned China’s plan to impose a new security law in Hong Kong, calling it a “death knell” for the city’s freedoms.

China is seeking to pass a law that would ban “treason, secession, sedition and subversion” in Hong Kong.

Critics say the law would strip Hong Kong of autonomy and rights not seen in other parts of China.

Mr Pompeo said the decision to bypass Hong Kong’s lawmakers ignores “the will of the people”.

“The United States strongly urges Beijing to reconsider its disastrous proposal, abide by its international obligations, and respect Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy, democratic institutions, and civil liberties,” Mr Pompeo said in a statement on Friday.

Mr Pompeo’s intervention is likely to infuriate the Chinese government, whose relations with the US have been strained recently by disputes over trade and the coronavirus pandemic.

In Hong Kong, pro-democracy activists have been calling for support from western governments after China announced the law.

On Friday, campaigners urged mass protests over the weekend against the law, which they see as an erosion of Hong Kong’s autonomy.

The law was submitted at the annual National People’s Congress (NPC), which largely rubber-stamps decisions already taken by the Communist leadership, but is still the most important political event of the year.

Hong Kong, a semi-autonomous region and an economic powerhouse, was meant to have introduced such a law after the handover from British control to Chinese rule in 1997.

Now, after a wave of sustained and often violent protests in Hong Kong last year, Beijing is attempting to push the law through. The Chinese government argues the law is necessary to “prevent, stop and punish” such protests in the future.

Hong Kong’s government said it would co-operate with Beijing to enact the law, adding it would not affect the city’s freedoms.

Why is the law so controversial?

Hong Kong is what is known as a “special administrative region” of China.

It has observed a “one country, two systems” policy since Britain returned sovereignty in 1997, which has allowed it certain freedoms the rest of China does not have.

Pro-democracy activists fear that China pushing through the law could mean “the end of Hong Kong” – that is, the effective end of its autonomy and these freedoms.

In his statement, Mr Pompeo said any decision to impinge on Hong Kong’s autonomy and freedoms would “inevitably impact our assessment” of the territory’s status.

The US is currently considering whether to extend Hong Kong’s preferential trading and investment privileges.

President Trump has also weighed in, saying the US would react strongly if it went through – without giving details.

What is in Beijing’s proposed law?

The “draft decision” – as it is known before approval by the NPC – was explained by Wang Chen, vice-chairman of the Standing Committee of the NPC.

It consists of an introduction and seven articles. Article 4 may prove the most controversial.

That article says Hong Kong “must improve” national security, before adding: “When needed, relevant national security organs of the Central People’s Government will set up agencies in Hong Kong to fulfil relevant duties to safeguard national security in accordance with the law.”

Addressing the congress, Premier Li Keqiang said: “We’ll establish sound legal systems and enforcement mechanisms for safeguarding national security in the two Special Administrative Regions.”

Hong Kong’s leader Carrie Lam, who is seen as part of the pro-Beijing political establishment, said the law would help authorities tackle illegal activity in the city.

Security law open to very wide interpretation

Robin Brant, BBC China Correspondent

China has long desired a new national security law for Hong Kong. Beijing believes almost a year of mass protests and, at times, paralysing confrontations on the streets shows that now it is needed more than ever.

But critics point to what they say are ambiguities inherent in such a law and the broad, generalist framework it would bring to a place which has a very different legal tradition than the communist-controlled mainland.

“Treason, sedition and subversion” are all open to a very wide interpretation. Up to now, the worst charge most arrested protesters have faced has been for rioting.

The notion of “terrorism” also features in this proposed law. That too could encompass wide-ranging acts and activities that the authoritarian rulers on the mainland consider far more menacing than those in Hong Kong, or for that matter elsewhere.

China could essentially place the draft law into Annex III of the Basic Law, which covers national laws that must be implemented in Hong Kong – either by legislation, or decree.

The NPC is expected to vote on the draft law at the end of its annual session, on 28 May.

It will then be forwarded to the NPC’s Standing Committee, China’s top legislature, which is expected to finalise and enact the law by the end of June.

Why is China doing this?

Last year, Hong Kong was rocked by months of protests sparked by a bill that would have allowed extraditions to mainland China.

Mr Wang said the security risks had become “increasingly notable” – a reference to last year’s protests.

“Considering Hong Kong’s situation at present, efforts must be made at the state-level to establish and improve the legal system and enforcement mechanisms,” he is quoted as saying in state media.

Beijing may also fear September’s elections to Hong Kong’s legislature.

If last year’s success for pro-democracy parties in district elections is repeated, government bills could potentially be blocked.

What is Hong Kong’s legal situation?

Hong Kong was under British control for more than 150 years up to 1997.

The British and Chinese governments signed a treaty – the Sino-British Joint Declaration – that agreed Hong Kong would have “a high degree of autonomy, except in foreign and defence affairs”, for 50 years.

This was enshrined in the Basic Law, which runs out in 2047.

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China’s parliament aims for show of strength

China’s National People’s Congress is a key date in Beijing’s choreography of politics and power.

It takes place this year as the country emerges from the virus crisis – and seeks to bolster its authority both on the domestic and the global stage.

It also follows months of pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong that have angered China’s leaders. The congress has proposed a new national security law that looks set to limit freedoms in the territory.

The annual meeting is usually scheduled for early March but was postponed because of the pandemic.

And, as much as that delay highlighted the severity of the crisis, its rescheduling is a show of strength and confidence – a sign, Beijing hopes, that things are under control.

China is where the pandemic started but it’s also the country that brought a large outbreak under control – with lockdown measures emulated by many other countries hit by the virus.

The economic fallout, though, remains dramatic – in the first quarter, China’s GDP contracted for the first time in decades.

Added to those domestic challenges, Beijing is facing increasing scrutiny and criticism from abroad over what it did – and didn’t do – when the virus emerged.

What is the National People’s Congress?

The NPC is China’s parliament, the top legislative body, and it usually meets once a year in early March.

Although in theory the country’s most powerful institution, it is seen as largely a rubber-stamp assembly in Beijing’s theatrics of democracy.

It usually approves whatever has been decided beforehand by the top echelon of the Communist Party.

Why is the Hong Kong proposal controversial?

Usually, the NPC is about unveiling the country’s key economic targets, approving budgets, and passing legislation.

This year will also see the discussion of a proposal for a new security law in Hong Kong that could ban sedition, secession and treason.

The proposal is highly controversial – when the Hong Kong government tried to pass similar legislation in 2003, about 500,000 people took part in street protests against it, and the legislation was eventually shelved.

A spokesman for the NPC said on Thursday that that legislation was “highly necessary” and would “safeguard national security in Hong Kong”.

However, pro-democracy activists believe that Beijing is slowly eroding Hong Kong’s judicial independence and other freedoms not enjoyed in mainland China.

The proposal is also controversial because it is expected to circumvent Hong Kong’s own law-making processes – leading to criticism that Beijing is undermining Hong Kong’s autonomy.

The draft motion is seen as response to months of pro-democracy street protests, that often ended in violent clashes, in Hong Kong.

What else is on the agenda?

According to state media, topping the agenda will also be: epidemic control, economic growth targets, poverty alleviation, employment policy, and drafting China’s first civil code.

Premier Li Keqiang – the number two in Chinese politics – is scheduled to speak on Friday, with his address possibly including the economic target for the year as well as fresh measures to stimulate the economy.

But after the depressing data from the first quarter, there’s doubt over whether there will a clear-cut growth target for 2020.

It’s also set to be a large affair. Nearly 3,000 delegates from around the country will gather in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing for 10 days. They represent China’s provinces, autonomous regions, centrally-administered municipalities, the special administrative regions of Hong Kong and Macau, as well as the armed forces.

There will also be a meeting of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), the most powerful political advisory body in the country – which does not have any legislative power.

While the NPC will meet on Friday, the CPPCC already kicked off on Thursday.

The importance of projecting power and strength

Failure to handle the economic fallout from the pandemic could undermine Beijing’s domestic legitimacy – a real problem for a regime that promises growing prosperity in exchange for authoritarian rule.

At least as important as the actual policy, will therefore be the desire to project power and control. State media have already touted the event as being of “historic significance” and an “opportunity to gather national strength”.

To the outside world, China will seek to project itself as a transparent and responsible power – a model for the rest of the world.

Despite being accused of suppressing early warnings, China insists it alerted the world of the severity of the virus in time. Beijing says other countries simply neglected to heed those warnings.

What is the virus situation in China?

The novel coronavirus broke out in late 2019 in Wuhan in China’s Hubei province. The country was the epicentre of the virus before it spread around the world.

But wide-ranging lockdown and quarantine measures eventually slowed the number of new infections to a single-digit trickle.

Out of about 84,000 confirmed infections, almost 80,000 have recovered while more than 4,500 have died. There are currently only a handful of active cases.

Concern over a second wave though remains. New clusters near the Russian border have brought home the dangers of re-importing the virus.

Overall though, the lockdowns are being lifted, schools are gradually reopening and economic activity is resuming.

What about the economic fallout?

The coronavirus pandemic is expected to have a profound impact on economies around the globe.

For China, we already have a shocking data point: in the first three months of the year, the economy contracted by 6.8%, the first contraction in decades.

In the last two decades, China has seen average economic growth of around 9% a year – although experts have regularly questioned the accuracy of its economic data.

But when the virus struck and Beijing introduced large-scale shutdowns and quarantines in late January, the economy in many parts of China ground to a halt.

Although factory work is resuming, the economic and social consequences of a slowing economy will continue.

China has already unveiled a range of support measures to cushion the impact – though not on the same scale of some other major economies.

The NPC might give us more clues as to how Beijing plans to put its economy back on track.

But with an export-dependant economy, much of the recovery will depend not just on China – but on how the rest of the world recovers.

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