China on Tuesday passed a new contentious law for Hong Kong that would empower authorities to crack down on opposition to Beijing, risking deeper divisions with western governments that have warned of the erosion of freedoms in the territory.
The swift passage of the law in Beijing marked the urgency that Communist Party leader Xi Jinping has given to expanding control in Hong Kong after the territory was rocked by pro-democracy protests last year.
Details of the law had not been released until Tuesday night, but Carrie Lam, the city leader, said it would take effect later in the night.
The law underscores Beijing’s determination to bring about radical political change in Hong Kong, a former British colony with its own legal system and civil liberties never seen in mainland China. It could be used to quell protests such as those that last year became an increasingly confrontational and sometimes violent challenge to Chinese rule.
The legislation struck a blow to Hong Kong’s opposition forces on Tuesday even before it went into effect. Several prominent young activists withdrew from politics, some groups disbanded, and some companies distanced themselves from the pro-democracy movement. Opposition politicians quickly criticized the law for its power to silence dissent.
“Their goal is to repress and oppress, and to scare and intimidate Hong Kong people,” said Claudia Mo, a pro-democracy legislator. “And they could be successful at that.”
The Chinese legislature passed the law the day before July 1, the politically charged anniversary of Hong Kong’s 1997 surrender to China, which regularly sparks pro-democracy protests. On last year’s anniversary, a large peaceful demonstration gave way to violence when a small group of activists broke into the Hong Kong legislature, smashing glass walls and painting slogans on the walls.
Mr. Xi signed the legislation on Tuesday, according to announcements from China’s official Xinhua News Agency. The vote by a senior legislative body, taken less than two weeks after lawmakers formally considered the legislation for the first time, was unanimous, the agency said, and the law will take effect once it is published.
Tam Yiu-chung, Hong Kong’s representative to the Chinese legislative group that revised the law, said the harsh measures were aimed at intimidating potential criminals.
“Those who have raised problems and violated this type of law in the past will hopefully be seen in the future,” Tam said in a television interview. “If they continue to defy the law, they will bear the consequences.”
Xi has pushed through the security law despite challenges his government faces with the coronavirus pandemic, a persistent economic downturn, and the Trump administration’s visa bans targeting Chinese officials involved in Hong Kong politics.
“Xi Jinping is seeking more comprehensive control over Hong Kong, and national security law will go a long way towards achieving that control,” said Willy Lam, a Chinese policy commentator and associate professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. In an interview. “It will be a new ball game, affecting schools, the media and many other areas of Hong Kong life.”
The security law was approved by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, an elite arm of the Chinese party-controlled legislature, in a process that drew criticism for its unusual secrecy.
Breaking normal procedure, the committee did not publish a draft of the law for public comment. Hong Kong activists, legal scholars and officials had to debate or defend the bill based on details released by China’s state media earlier this month.
“The fact that the Chinese authorities have passed this law without the people of Hong Kong being able to see it tells you a lot about their intentions,” said Joshua Rosenzweig, head of Amnesty International’s Chinese team. “His goal is to rule Hong Kong through fear from now on.”
The law requires the Hong Kong government to establish a new agency to oversee the application of the new rules. Beijing will create its own separate security arm in Hong Kong, empowered to investigate special cases and gather information.
Ms Lam, the top Hong Kong official, tried to defend the law in a recorded speech to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva on Tuesday, saying she would attack only a minority of people and make the territory It was safer for most residents. She said last year’s riots had threatened China’s security and accused foreign governments critical of the legislation of maintaining double standards.
“No central government could turn a blind eye to such threats to sovereignty and national security, as well as to the risks of subversion of state power,” Lam said.
On Tuesday, a few dozen Beijing supporters dressed in white shirts and blue caps gathered in a park to celebrate the passage of the law. They celebrated by waving large Chinese flags as they uncorked bottles of sparkling wine and drank from plastic cups.
Critics say new security agencies and politically shaded categories of crime, such as “inciting separatism,” could cause a chill in Hong Kong society.
“Potentially, security law permeates many activities that contribute to the vitality of Hong Kong’s civil society and the character of this international city and financial center,” said Cora Chan, associate professor of law, University of Hong Kong, It has studied China’s push for security legislation.
At least two groups that have called for Hong Kong to become an independent state said they would stop operating in the city. Such groups remain in the minority in Hong Kong, but have drawn government scrutiny. Activists are also concerned that the law may target those who peacefully demand true autonomy for the territory, rather than independence.
“They are doing whatever it takes to combat dissent and opposition here. It is unthinkable in the year 2020, ”said Mo, the pro-democratic legislator. “This is a great departure from civilization.”
Four high-ranking members of Demosisto, a political organization in Hong Kong that has attracted disaffected youth, announced that they would leave the group. They included Joshua Wong, leader of the 2014 pro-democracy protests known as the Umbrella Movement. The group then said it would dissolve.
“From now on, #Hongkong enters a new era of reign of terror,” Wong wrote on Twitter. In announcing his decision to leave Demosisto in a Facebook post, he said: “I will continue to hold onto my home, Hong Kong, until I am silenced and erased from this land.”
Administrators of the chat groups used by protesters on Telegram, a popular app, sent messages urging users not to panic, but they also said they should purge their data devices, contacts and photos if they joined future protests. .
The cold spread even to some companies that have openly supported the democratic movement. The Lung Mun Cafe, a well-known Cantonese restaurant that offered free meals to student protesters last year, said Tuesday that it would no longer be affiliated with the yellow economy, named for the color of the umbrellas protesters used to defend themselves against tear gas streams.
“Lung Mun Cafe has more or less accompanied the people of Hong Kong on this ‘road against tyranny,'” Cheung Chun-kit, the owner of the coffee chain, said in a statement posted on Facebook. But he explained that he was pulling out of the yellow economy because “the national security law has made me re-examine my path this year.”
The city’s police force has moved quickly to stop peaceful protests against the security law in recent days, arresting dozens of people, including 53 protesters on Sunday. On Tuesday, a small group of protesters gathered at a luxury shopping mall in Central, a downtown district, and chanted, “We will fight to our last breath!”
Police have denied requests from three groups to hold protest marches on Wednesday, the anniversary of the handover, making it the first time that authorities have refused to allow a demonstration on that date. Some opposition lawmakers and democracy advocates have urged people to go outside despite the ban.
“The July 1 march tomorrow will show that we will absolutely not accept this evil national security law,” Wu Chi-wai, a pro-democracy lawmaker, said Tuesday. “Even if they try to crush us, we will use all kinds of ways and methods to ensure that the voices and opinions of the Hong Kong people can be expressed.”
The Hong Kong government is required to introduce national security legislation under the Basic Law, the city’s constitution, but that legislation has long been viewed as deeply unpopular. The government’s attempt to do so in 2003 failed after a protest of nearly 500,000 people, and successive local administrations have been reluctant to review the matter.
A poll of 1,002 respondents conducted by the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute in mid-June that was commissioned by Reuters found that more than half opposed security legislation, while only a third supported it. But support for the protests had also weakened to 51 percent, according to the survey, compared to 58 percent in a poll in March.
Concerns have risen over reports that the law would introduce strong prison terms for loosely defined political crimes.
In pushing the legislation, Mr. Xi has affirmed that the Chinese central authorities have the power to prescribe security laws for the territory. That argument has been denounced by scholars of the law in Hong Kong, who say that Beijing is exceeding itself.
China has also come under fire from other governments, including the Group of the Top 7 Industrialized Democracies, which have called on China to abandon the law.
The Trump administration has said the United States would impose visa restrictions on Chinese officials who are believed to have undermined Hong Kong’s relative autonomy, although it did not name any officials. On Monday, the United States also restricted exports of US defense equipment and some high-tech products to Hong Kong.
In Beijing, Zhao Lijian, a spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, said China would impose eye-for-eye visa restrictions on Americans “with egregious conduct related to the Hong Kong problems.” He denounced the Trump administration’s sanctions against Hong Kong on Tuesday and said: “Bullying will never work in China.”
Austin Ramzy, Elaine Yu and Nick Bruce contributed reporting. Claire Fu contributed to the investigation.