Beijing has signaled it will push through sweeping national security legislation for Hong Kong, its most aggressive effort yet to exert its control over the semi-autonomous city since it was returned to Chinese control in 1997.
"Hong Kong is an inseparable part of the People's Republic of China," Zhang Yesui, a spokesperson for China's National People's Congress, told journalists Thursday night in Beijing. "In light of recent circumstances, the NPC is exercising power enshrined in China's Constitution ... to uphold the institutional framework of one country, two systems."
The latter refers to the policy of allowing Hong Kong to retain much of its own administrative and economic policy functions and preserve certain civil liberties until 2047, as well as its independent judiciary, despite being officially part of China for 50 years.
The renewed push from Beijing to pass a national security law will almost certainly set off more protests against its rule in Hong Kong. Ongoing protests originally sparked by a now-suspended extradition bill with Beijing had faded in recent months as the coronavirus pandemic kept people indoors. Protests have recently resumed, however, in light of government arrests of pro-democracy figures.
These protests may also flare up on July 1, when an annual rally takes place on the anniversary of Britain's handover of Hong Kong to China. Last year's event drew tens of thousands. Another pro-democracy rally usually held on June 4, the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests, has been canceled as a result of the pandemic.
A similar national security law was shelved in 2003 after residents protested en masse. That law would have allowed police searches of media outlets and political offices without a warrant and criminalized seditious behavior.
This time, by proposing to draft the national security law through China's legislature, Beijing is signaling it will bypass Hong Kong's Legislative Council, where pro-democracy opposition could block the bill.
According to the agenda published Thursday, the National People's Congress will meet over the next week to discuss a draft of "Decision on Establishing and Improving the Legal System & Enforcement Mechanisms for Hong Kong to Safeguard National Security."
China's legislature would then authorize a smaller body of lawmakers to draft and pass the law, which could immediately take effect in Hong Kong without approval from its Legislative Council per an annex in the city's Basic Law, akin to its constitution.
No text has been released yet for the draft decision, but it is expected to resemble in structure the national security law that pro-Beijing lawmakers attempted to pass in Hong Kong in 2003 to define and criminalize seditious or secessionist behavior.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
The pandemic has changed a lot in this world but did not change the struggle over the rights of people in Hong Kong. Before the outbreak, you will recall, protesters were insisting on their independent court system and other rights. China has sovereignty in Hong Kong, but it's supposed to guarantee those rights. Now the story resumes as China holds a pandemic-delayed meeting of its National People's Congress in Beijing. The one-party legislature is expected to impose new security controls on Hong Kong. NPR's Emily Feng is following all this from Beijing. Hi there, Emily.
EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Hey, Steve.
INSKEEP: What's in this legislative proposal?
FENG: We were only able to see a brief proposal for what this law might contain a few hours ago, and so far, it looks like it will criminalize four big buckets of behavior - secession, subversion of state power, foreign interference and terrorism. These are really general terms that could be applied widely to everyone from protesters to politicians, even universities and media outlets. For Beijing, this is seen as a long overdue way to retain control over the city, particularly after violent protests that began last year in Hong Kong.
But in Hong Kong, this law is seen as the most direct codification of Beijing's control over the city. Most alarmingly, the law would allow China to set up its own security offices in the city, so you could see Chinese police and military patrolling the streets if this law passes. Expect protests in Hong Kong.
INSKEEP: OK. So does this mean that Hong Kong essentially doesn't have the partial autonomy that it has had since becoming part of China again in the 1990s?
FENG: Exactly. If passed, this is the end of what China calls one country, two systems in practice. That limited autonomy was supposed to last until 2047 - so for the first 50 years of Chinese rule of Hong Kong. But we have this law this year, and it will be a turning point. It will reduce, if not completely erase, the legal firewall of sorts between mainland China and Hong Kong. Here's Dennis Kwok. He is a prominent pro-democracy lawmaker speaking earlier today at a press conference.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
DENNIS KWOK: This is the end of Hong Kong. This is the end of one country, two systems. Make no mistake about it that Beijing, the Central People's Government, has completely breached its promise to the Hong Kong people.
FENG: You can hear how emotional he is on the video. He's almost crying. And he's channeling what many people in Hong Kong feel, which is that Beijing has betrayed the promises it made to Hong Kong in 1997. This year, under cover of COVID, there've been a wave of arrests of prominent lawmakers and activists, more protesters being jailed. But this law is really being seen as the final blow to Hong Kong's institutions.
INSKEEP: Is there any popular support in Hong Kong for Beijing taking a firmer hand there?
FENG: No. In fact, Hong Kong lawmakers tried to pass a similar national security bill in Hong Kong's own legislature back in 2003, but there were huge demonstrations, and politicians had to give up on the bill. This time, Beijing's taking no chances. It's passing the law in Beijing, and in doing so, it'll completely bypass Hong Kong's own legislature.
INSKEEP: Just to be clear, is there any doubt that this law is going to pass the National People's Congress?
FENG: Absolutely not. It will trigger protests in Hong Kong, but that will likely only push Beijing further to pass the law. China's legislature is expected to vote on authorizing a smaller group of lawmakers to draft and pass the actual text of the law on Thursday. Any challenge that Hong Kong can mount to it is going to be overturned by Beijing. What I'm waiting to see is if the U.S. is going to use the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, which is legislation that passed last year that could revoke special economic privileges Hong Kong has if its freedom and rule of law are gone.
INSKEEP: Dramatic news with the rights of millions of people at stake - and we have an update today from NPR's Emily Feng. Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.