Hong Kong: Violent clashes feared as China approves controversial bill

China’s parliament has approved a controversial security bill which could threaten Hong Kong’s traditional freedoms.

With an applauding president Xi Jinping present, the draft national security bill was officialy endorsed by China‘s National People’s Congress.

It is a move expected to trigger violent clashes in the territory and reprisals from the United States amid fears it foreshadows Beijing’s plans to strip more freedoms from the semi-autonomous city.

The vote overrides the authority of the territory’s Legislative Council, where efforts to push the bill through had been thwarted by public opposition.

Chinese officials will now draft details of the new laws, which it is believed will ban sedition – actions that encourage dissent against China’s authorities.

Beijing says the legislation is aimed at tackling secession, subversion, terrorism and foreign interference.

But riot police had been deployed across Hong Kong in advance of the vote, after disorder on Wednesday that saw police firing pepper pellets at protesters and make 360 arrests.

Thousands of people have taken to the streets in anger over the bill, with demonstrators staying out late into the evening.

They believe it will undermine civil liberties and might be used to suppress political activity.

They were heard chanting for full democracy and for Hong Kong to seek independence from China, saying this is now “the only way out”.

And it came against the backdrop of escalating threats from the Washington, where Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Hong Kong no longer qualified for special treatment under US law, potentially dealing a devastatig blow to its status as a major financial hub.

He told Congress that China’s plan to impose the new legislation was “only the latest in a series of actions that fundamentally undermine Hong Kong’s autonomy and freedoms”.

“No reasonable person can assert today that Hong Kong maintains a high degree of autonomy from China, given facts on the ground,” he said.

Beijing had unveiled plans last week for national security legislation for Hong Kong that aims to tackle secession, subversion and terrorist activities.

It is expected to see Chinese intelligence agencies set up bases in the city, which was supposed to have a high degree of autonomy under the terms of its 1997 handover to China by former colonial power Britain.

Chinese authorities and the Beijing-backed government in Hong Kong insisted there is no threat to the city’s high degree of autonomy and the new security law would be tightly focused.

The US and China clashed over Hong Kong at the United Nations on Wednesday after Beijing opposed a request by Washington for the Security Council to meet for discussions about the national security legislation.

The US mission to the United Nations said the issue was “a matter of urgent global concern that implicates international peace and security”, while China said the legislation was an internal matter.

Why this legislation was a huge surprise – and a massive accelerant

By Tom Cheshire, Asia Correspondent

Amid the pandemic, it’s been much observed that history accelerates in crisis. Here in Beijing, years have been compressed into the last week, in terms of China, Hong Kong and the rest of the world.

On Friday, the National People’s Congress proposed national security legislation to cover Hong Kong. It was a huge surprise – and a massive accelerant. Hong Kong’s autonomy was supposed to last until 2047.

Beijing and Hong Kong insist that Hong Kong’s freedoms will be preserved. The US disagrees. Mike Pompeo, the US Secretary of State, told Congress that “no reasonable person can assert today that Hong Kong maintains a high degree of autonomy from China, given the facts on the ground.”

It’s probable that the US will go on to impose sanctions – something unthinkable last year, even amid the heights of the Hong Kong protests and the heavy-handed police response. And US-China relations will reach their lowest ebb since the Korean War, nearly 70 years ago.

Why has so much happened, so quickly, in this case? The pandemic initially looked to be a threat to the Chinese Communist Party.

Instead, they contained it, at the same time as the West grimly tallied tens of thousands of deaths. Washington railed against Beijing – the same trajectory as pre-pandemic, but now with much more vigour and much higher stakes.

Beijing responded equally forcefully. It has always wanted to bring Hong Kong to heel but seemed to be happy to wait and, year by year, grip Hong Kong tighter.

The pandemic accelerated time, so China seized this moment now, and that has accelerated time once more.

Issues like Taiwan – and China’s ultimate aim to “reunify” or in fact annexe it – seemed a generation in the future. Now they are conceivably short term.

Last year, protesters told me of their fear that, one day, Hong Kong would become “just another Chinese city”. The US is now saying that this is exactly the case. “One day” has come very quickly for the people of Hong Kong.

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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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