China passes Hong Kong security law, deepening fears for future

China’s parliament has passed controversial national security legislation for Hong Kong that Beijing says is necessary to deal with issues of terrorism, subversion and foreign interference but critics say will outlaw dissent and destroy the autonomy and freedoms promised when the territory was returned to China in 1997.

The bill was passed unanimously by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress at a three-day meeting that began on Sunday, according to multiple media reports in Hong Kong citing unnamed sources. The draft of the law has not been made public.

The legislation will come into effect when it is gazetted in Hong Kong – bypassing the semi-autonomous territory’s own legislature – and is expected to be in force by July 1, the anniversary of the territory’s return to Chinese rule.

Al Jazeera’s Katrina Yu, reporting from Beijing, noted the process had been fast-tracked.

“It’s very symbolic that this law has been passed just a day before the anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover from Britain back to mainland China,” she said. “It seems to be Beijing telling the people that at the end of the day it is China that is in charge in Hong Kong and China’s leaders will do whatever they deem necessary to protect Hong Kong.”

Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam, speaking via video link to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, urged the international community to “respect our country’s right to safeguard national security”.

She said the law, which is expected to come into force imminently, would not undermine the city’s autonomy or its independent judiciary.

Authorities in Beijing and Hong Kong have repeatedly said the legislation is aimed at a few “troublemakers” and will not affect rights and freedoms, nor investor interests.

China announced its plan to impose the legislation on the eve of the National People’s Congress last month, after nearly a year of sometimes violent pro-democracy protests in the territory that began over a now-withdrawn extradition bill with the mainland.

The security bill gave renewed momentum to the protests, which had calmed as the coronavirus pandemic made it more difficult to hold mass gatherings, and triggered condemnation from countries including the United States and the United Kingdom.

Dominic Raab, the British foreign secretary, called the passing of the law on Tuesday a “grave step”, while Charles Michel, president of the European Union Council, said the bloc “deplores” the decision. Japan described the move as “regrettable”, while Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen said she was “very disappointed” at the outcome.

And Joshua Rosenzweig, head of Amnesty International China, said Beijing’s “aim is to govern Hong Kong through fear from this point forward”.

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