China proposal could mean tougher crackdown on opposition in Hong Kong
Plans by China to impose new national security legislation in Hong Kong are likely to incite protesters at a time when Beijing is attempting to tighten its grip and stem dissent from again exploding in the former British colony.
“National security is the bedrock underpinning the stability of the country,” said Zhang Yesui, a spokesman for China’s National People’s Congress, which began its annual meeting Thursday. “Safeguarding national security serves the fundamental interest of all Chinese, our Hong Kong compatriots included.”
The decision sent shockwaves through Hong Kong, where past calls for national security legislation were shelved after mass protests. Many fear that new laws passed will suppress dissidents and endanger freedom of speech, destroying Hong Kong’s longtime status as a cultural and political refuge for those who would be persecuted in China.
Zhang said the National People’s Congress, China’s rubber-stamp legislature, would exercise constitutional power to “establish and improve” a legal framework for enforcing national security in Hong Kong.
The move could bypass Hong Kong’s own legislature by altering a part of the region’s quasi-constitution without going through usual lawmaking process. Such direct intervention might compel the United States to declare as invalid “one country, two systems,” the understanding that Hong Kong should retain its semiautonomous status until 2047.
Such a prospect would further aggravate U.S.China tensions, already at a breaking point over the coronavirus pandemic, which the Trump administration blames on Beijing. The two sides have been trading testy exchanges over each other’s shortcomings in handling the deadly disease.
Zhang said China’s intentions in Hong Kong were “highly necessary” in light of “new circumstances,” alluding to more than six months of anti-government protests that rocked the special administrative region last year.
Chinese President Xi Jinping saw the uprising as a threat against the the Communist Party.
What began as peaceful resistance last year to a bill that would have allowed extradition of suspected criminals to mainland China evolved into a citywide movement against police brutality and Beijing’s influence over the former British colony. More than 7,000 people were arrested for involvement with the protests, including children as young as 11.
Now, with the world preoccupied by the coronavirus, Beijing is moving to assert control over Hong Kong’s institutions. In the legislature, pro-Beijing parliamentarians took over a legislative committee on Monday by force, after security guards removed 15 opposition lawmakers from the room.
Schools have also been targeted. Beijing officials are pushing for reform to replace liberal studies, which taught critical thinking and which they blame for encouraging students to protest, with “patriotic education.”
Many Hong Kongers are looking to upcoming legislative elections in September to express their will, as they did in an overwhelming victory for pro-democratic candidates during districtlevel elections in November. But their choices may be limited. Hong Kong has begun arresting opposition lawmakers and activists who participated in last year’s protests.
What’s left is the streets, where Hong Kong’s police have been empowered to use force against protesters after a government report investigating police conduct in last year’s protests recently vindicated the police.
Hong Kong’s police have also denied requests for gathering, citing the need for social distancing due to the coronavirus. The city’s annual June 4 vigil, the only mass commemoration of the Tiananmen Square massacres on Chinese soil, has been forbidden.
Protests have began and are likely to escalate.
This kind of direct lawmaking is “destruction” of Hong Kong’s Basic Law, said Johannes Chan, law professor at the University of Hong Kong, in an interview with local media. “It’s increasingly difficult to believe that ‘one country, two systems’ can still exist.”