China will propose a national security law for Hong Kong in response to last year’s often violent pro-democracy protests that plunged the city into its deepest turmoil since it returned to Chinese rule in 1997, state news agency Xinhua has said.
The Chinese parliament will discuss the controversial new law at its annual session, Xinhua said, in a move likely to stoke unrest in the semi-autonomous region. The legislation will be introduced at the meeting of the National People’s Congress that opens on Friday.
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Xinhua said a preparatory meeting for a Chinese parliament session adopted an agenda that included an item to review a bill “on establishing and improving the legal system and enforcement mechanisms for the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region to safeguard national security”.
The South China Morning Post newspaper, citing unnamed sources, said the laws would ban secession, foreign interference, “terrorism” and all seditious activities aimed at toppling the central government and any external interference in the former British colony.
Reporting form Beijing, Al Jazeera’s Katrina Yu said the legislation signifies Beijing taking “into their own hands” the political unrest in Hong Kong that sparked nearly a year of intermittent protests beginning in June of 2019.
Those protests were initially in response to an extradition bill introduced in Hong Kong’s legislature that would allow Beijing to extradite accused individuals to the mainland to face trial. The bill was stalled and later withdrawn.
“What will happen, as we understand it, [China’s parliament] will make an amendment to the basic law, which is Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, using a legal backdoor which essentially allows it to bypass the usual legislative processes in Hong Kong,” Yu said.
“This is because, as Beijing sees, there’s simply too much opposition from pro-democracy lawmakers in Hong Kong, so they’re going to have to put this in themselves and make this very strong imposition of their power,” she added.
Hong Kong was returned to China from British rule in 1997 under the so-called “one country two systems” arrangement, in which the region maintained some autonomy, including a separate judiciary and more civil liberties for its citizens. The arrangement is set to end in 2047.
Emily Lau, a leading member of Hong Kong’s Democratic Party, told Al Jazeera that residents of Hong Kong are “very concerned, very alarmed, and very disturbed” over fears the new legislation “will take away our freedoms, will take away our personal safety and the rule of law”.
“Now it seems like [Beijing] is breaking up all the promises and they want to legislate for us,” she said.
Reporting from Hong Kong, Al Jazeera’s Adrian Brown said China’s parliament appeared to be seizing on coronavirus pandemic restrictions in the semi-autonomous region, where gatherings of more than eight people are banned.
“Of course the timing of this is very significant. It may well be that a decision was taken by the leadership in Beijing to push through this legislation now because of course it’s difficult for people to protest in Hong Kong,” he said.
While protests have been smaller since the outbreak began, they have persisted through the pandemic.
On Monday, 15 veteran pro-democracy activists appeared in a Hong Kong court for the beginning of their organising and taking part in last year’s assemblies.
The arrests sparked criticism from the United Kingdom, the European Union and the United Nation’s human rights body, the latter saying non-violent activists should not be prosecuted for attending unsanctioned rallies.
The proposed legislation could be a turning point for China’s freest and most international city, potentially triggering a revision of its special status in Washington and likely to spark more unrest.
Online posts have already emerged urging people to gather to protest on Thursday night and dozens were seen shouting pro-democracy slogans in a shopping mall as riot police stood nearby.