China is expected to pass a controversial new national security law for Hong Kong over the coming days.
The National People’s Congress Standing Committee, the country’s highest legislative body, is meeting in Beijing to finalise the details of the law.
Many in Hong Kong and around the world believe the law will violate Hong Kong’s traditional liberties, including a free press, independent judiciary, and the right to protest.
Beijing insists Hong Kong’s freedoms will be protected and that the law is necessary to restore order to the city.
What’s in the law?
No one knows exactly because Beijing hasn’t published the detail – even Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam hasn’t seen a full draft.
But summaries published by Chinese state media say the law criminalises secession, subversion, terrorism and colluding with foreign forces.
Similar laws are used in mainland China to jail critics of the Chinese Communist Party. Chinese security agencies will be able to operate in Hong Kong itself.
Other reports have suggested that the law will allow the Hong Kong chief executive to pick judges for national security cases; for some cases to be tried in mainland courts (which have a 99% conviction rate); for special facilities to be used to detain those arrested under the law; and that the law could potentially be applied retroactively – criminalising behaviour that was perfectly legal in the past.
Why is it controversial?
When the UK returned Hong Kong to China in 1997, the Chinese government agreed to maintain the city’s freedoms until 2047, under an arrangement known as “one country, two systems”.
This was enshrined in Hong Kong’s Basic Law, which serves as a constitution. Under that, Hong Kong is supposed to legislate on its own affairs, apart from foreign affairs and defence.
Under the Basic Law, Hong Kong was meant to pass its own national security law. But previous attempts have been unpopular and, ultimately, unsuccessful.
In May, China shocked the world by announcing it would impose a national security law directly on Hong Kong, by adding it to an annex of the Basic Law.
What happens next?
The law must be voted on by the Standing Committee, added to the annex of the Basic Law, then announced by gazette in Hong Kong itself. These are all formalities; afterwards, the law will be in effect and we will finally know the detail.
In one sense, though, the full text of the law doesn’t really matter: the national security law is not an end in itself but a means for China to bring Hong Kong to heel.
The law means whatever Beijing wants it to mean, so its implementation is the most important aspect. When the first cases are brought, people in Hong Kong will have a better understanding of the law’s true impact.
What does this mean for the Hong Kong protests?
Protests to the bill have been relatively limited so far. Authorities have restricted gatherings, citing COVID-19 concerns. But last year’s proposed extradition bill – a much less significant piece of legislation – brought huge numbers on to the street, and often led to violence.
An annual pro-democracy march is held on July 1. Police have denied permission but it’s still likely to go ahead.
If, as likely, the national security law is in effect by then, it will be an important test of three things: the strength of public feeling against the law; protesters’ willingness to risk the consequences that the new law potentially brings; and how the authorities might apply the new law to those who take part in the march.
How has the rest of the world reacted?
Pretty vigorously. The G7 group of countries has said the law is not in line with the Basic Law or China’s international commitments.
The US senate has passed a bill that would sanction Chinese officials who undermine Hong Kong’s autonomy and the Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has imposed visa restrictions on unnamed current and former party officials.
The UK has urged China not to adopt the law and promised to make it easier for the millions of people in Hong Kong who hold or are eligible for a British National Overseas Passport to become UK citizens.
The Chinese government has denounced these efforts as outside interference in its internal affairs.
The national security law does have its international supporters, though: North Korea, Syria and Iran have come out in favour.