Updated 12:50 p.m. ET
Beijing’s top legislative body has unanimously passed a sweeping national security law for Hong Kong, a controversial move that could effectively criminalize most dissent in the city and that risks widening the rift between China and Western countries that have criticized the law.
The news was first reported by local Hong Kong media: cable television station NOW News; the city’s public broadcaster; and a slew of newspapers, including Wei Wen Po and Ta Kung Pao, two pro-Beijing outlets that often signal official Chinese policy.
Hours later, the official Chinese news agency Xinhua reported President Xi Jinping had signed the measure into law. Xinhua said it will be incorporated into Hong Kong’s Basic Law, the city’s mini-constitution. Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam said the law would take effect by late Tuesday.
A final text of the law released late Tuesday night reveals Beijing will set up its own national security agency to prosecute cases on Hong Kong soil but will not be beholden to Hong Kong’s laws. Beijing will also appoint an adviser to supervise the local Hong Kong administration on national security issues. Those found guilty of the highest degree of subversion, secession, foreign interference or terrorism could face life imprisonment.
“The legal firewall, if you like, that separates the two systems [of Hong Kong and Beijing] is now gone,” said Alan Leong, a former chair of Hong Kong’s bar association and chair of Hong Kong’s Civic Party. “We are allowing the long arms of the Chinese Communist Party to reach Hong Kong.”
Beijing has defended the law by arguing such a measure is needed to restore stability to Hong Kong, which has been rocked by sometimes-violent protests over the last year stemming first from a now-shelved extradition bill and general dissatisfaction with Beijing’s heavy-handed governance.
Pro-Beijing legislators in Hong Kong tried to pass a similar but more limited national security measure in 2003 but the measure was rescinded after an estimated half-million peaceful protesters took to the streets in opposition.
This time, Beijing took no chances. It announced in May that its own parliament would ram through the legislation in a swift and secretive process that has bypassed Hong Kong’s own legislative council.
In passing the law in Beijing, China is making clear its legal system is paramount.
The end of Hong Kong self-governance?
Per the terms of its handover to Chinese rule in 1997, Hong Kong was promised 50 years of limited autonomy under a principle called “One Country, Two Systems.” Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, the Basic Law, and its decades of independent judicial rulings protecting civil rights were to take precedence over Beijing’s governance until at least 2047.
But legal experts say the national security law demonstrates how Beijing sees its own political diktat as now superseding Hong Kong’s rule of law.
“China gets to determine when its interests are involved and when a [legal] interpretation is warranted,” said Cora Chan, an associate professor of law at the University of Hong Kong. “The [national security law] opens up a window into widespread interference in people’s lives and potentially penetrates into a lot of activities that contribute to a lot of the vibrancy of civil society and the character of this financial center.”
Breaking with procedure, a public draft of the law was not made available before it was passed in Beijing. Instead, in the weeks leading up to the law’s passage, even proponents in Hong Kong were left to parse scant details from the Chinese state media about what the law would entail.
“That is just completely contrary to the notions of law that we had in Hong Kong, which is law as an accessible, transparent process, where before you enact a law you discuss, you get the draft out, you debate it,” said Wilson Leung, a commercial litigator and a council member of Hong Kong’s bar association, which has criticized the national security law and demanded greater transparency in the drafting process.
Beijing has also pushed ahead with the law despite sanctions from the United States and criticism from other Western countries. The U.S. ended its preferential trading status with Hong Kong in May, saying the city no longer had any autonomy from mainland China and has slapped visa restrictions on Chinese officials in Hong Kong. (China announced it would put retaliatory visa restrictions on Americans who exhibit “egregious conduct” toward Hong Kong.) The United Kingdom, Hong Kong’s former colonial ruler, has offered a path toward citizenship for up to 3 million Hong Kong residents.
It is not yet clear how strictly the law will be applied in Hong Kong.
Chief Executive Lam has defended the law, asserting earlier this month that the measure “will only target an extremely small minority of illegal and criminal acts and activities.”
Yet Lam also admitted that Hong Kong officials had not seen the full proposed text of the national security law in the weeks leading up to its passage. On Tuesday morning, as Hong Kong outlets began reporting the law had passed, Lam refused to comment, saying it would be “inappropriate” to do so given the legislative body was still meeting in Beijing.
The fallout from the law is already being felt in Hong Kong.
Sales of VPN software, used to circumvent China’s Internet censors and evade some measures of digital surveillance, have skyrocketed.
Hundreds of outspoken Twitter accounts run by Hong Kong residents have been voluntarily deleted in the last few days as people rush to clear any potentially incriminating web-browsing history and online political posts.
And mere hours after the national security bill was approved, at least two opposition political parties announced they had effectively dissolved themselves.
Activist Joshua Wong and fellow activists Agnes Chow and Nathan Law announced their resignations from Demosisto, the youth political party they founded in 2016, on Facebook on Tuesday. They resolved to continue their activism individually.
Andy Chan, an activist who advocates for outright independence from Beijing, also said he was disbanding the Hong Kong branch of his political party and shifting operations to Taiwan and the United Kingdom.
“Great changes are coming. … no one can be sure about their tomorrow, ” Wong wrote on his Facebook page.