China’s National People’s Congress (NPC) has approved the decision to move forward with the National Security Law on Hong Kong in a move critics say will fundamentally undermine the freedoms that were enshrined in the territory’s laws when it was returned to Chinese rule in 1997.
News of the plan, ahead of the parliament vote on Thursday, gave renewed momentum to Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests, and fuelled condemnation from governments around the world.
US President Donald Trump has hinted the law could mean the end of Hong Kong’s special trading status with the United States with a decision to be announced by the end of the week. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Wednesday notified Congress that the administration no longer believes Hong Kong is autonomous from mainland China.
“The new national security law will deal the most severe blow to the rights of people in Hong Kong since the territory’s transfer to China in 1997,” Human Rights Watch China director Sophie Richardson said in a statement.
“Hong Kong people will now have to consider arrests and harsh sentences for protesting, speaking out, running for office, and other freedoms they have long enjoyed and struggled peacefully to defend.”
How is Hong Kong governed?
The British took control of Hong Kong in 1842 at the end of the first Opium War, and secured a 99-year lease for the island and its surrounding territories in 1898.
It was then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher who signed the agreement to return Hong Kong in 1984, with future governance to be based on the framework of ‘one country, two systems’.
At the time, the territory was a vital economic centre to a vastly poorer China, and the mini-constitution that was agreed – known as the Basic Law – afforded Hong Kong considerable autonomy, and its people rights and freedoms unknown on the mainland. It is supposed to remain in force until 2047.
Article 27, for instance, provides for freedom of speech, the press and demonstration. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights is also written into the Basic Law.
Article 45 says the “ultimate aim” in selecting chief executive should be universal suffrage. Article 68 says the same for the Legislative Council (Legco), Hong Kong’s 70-member parliament.
Both continue to be elected under rules that help ensure the domination of pro-Beijing voices. In Legco, only half the seats are chosen by direct election, while the chief executive is appointed by a small committee with Beijing having final approval.
The Basic Law also says the Hong Kong government is supposed to enact “on its own” legislation to replace colonial-era laws that prohibit acts such as treason, secession or subversion – in other words national security laws.