China is poised to pass a national security law for Hong Kong that the city's opposition lawmakers, analysts and U.S. officials say could plunge the semi-autonomous territory into its deepest turmoil since it returned to Chinese rule in 1997 and exacerbate already coronavirus-strained tensions between Washington and Beijing.
The draft law bans "treason, secession, sedition and subversion." It was submitted Friday at China's National People's Congress, an important annual political event where legislation already approved by China's ruling Community Party is rubber-stamped.
Full details of the law have not been released. However, critics say it will curb freedoms and puts Hong Kong's pro-democracy activists on a dangerous collision course with China's central government in Beijing. Supporters and Chinese officials, such as Zhang Yesui, a spokesman for the National People's Congress Foreign Affairs Committee, argue it is "highly necessary in light of new circumstances" in Hong Kong.
The motion is fueling concern among activist lawmakers.
"It's the saddest day in Hong Kong's history," Tanya Chan, a Hong Kong pro-democracy legislature, speaking told reporters outside the city's parliament.
"It's the end of 'one country, two systems,'" said Dennis Kwok, another pro-democracy lawmaker, referring to the policy that has governed Hong Kong since it returned to Chinese control after a century and a half of British colonial rule.
"One country, two systems" was intended to make sure that capitalist Hong Kong retained a measure of legal, economic and financial independence from socialist mainland China but the principle has come under intensifying pressure as Beijing has taken steps to bring the territory under full Chinese control. Hong Kong was rocked last year by almost six months of violent anti-China, pro-democracy protests as Beijing sought to tighten its grip on Hong Kong by imposing an extradition law to China.
China has also evolved to have a more nuanced economic system that draws from its socialist roots but incorporates aspects of western-style commercialism.
Hong Kong's leader Carrie Lam said Friday her government would cooperate with Beijing to enact the law and that it would not substantially affect civil liberties for the city's 7.5 million inhabitants. Still, China experts said the move is likely to trigger fresh protests and demands for democratic reforms that yield more independence from China.
"The reaction in Hong Kong could be intense, and violent," wrote Bill Bishop in his daily Sinocism Newsletter on Friday. Bishop's newsletter focuses on China's political and business affairs, and U.S-China relations. "The two central government leaders (Chinese President) Xi installed a few months ago to manage Hong Kong affairs are hardened CCP (Chinese Communist Party) cadres, and there are already few restraints to the behavior of the Hong Kong security services," he said.
President Donald Trump, who has berated Beijing over its handling of the coronavirus outbreak and has made anti-China rhetoric an increasing theme of his reelection message, said Thursday his administration would come down hard against any attempt by China to gain more control over the ex-British colony.
"Nobody knows yet" the details of China's plan or what it intends to do, he said. But "if it happens we'll address that issue very strongly," Trump said, without specifying potential U.S. actions. However, Democratic and Republican U.S. senators said they would consider introducing legislation to impose sanctions on Chinese officials.
"A further crackdown from Beijing will only intensify the Senate’s interest in re-examining the U.S.-China relationship," U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican, said in a statement. Morgan Ortagus, a spokeswoman for the U.S. State Department, said any move by China to impose legislation that did not reflect the will of the people would be highly destabilizing and met with strong U.S. condemnation.
"The decision to bypass Hong Kong's well-established legislative processes and ignore the will of the people of Hong Kong would be a death knell for the high degree of autonomy Beijing promised for Hong Kong," Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement on Friday.
Allen Carlson, an expert on Chinese politics at Cornell University, said China's move to adopt the law is consistent with the Chinese government’s approach to areas it considers restive – and claims as part of its national territory – such as Tibet and Xinjiang, an autonomous region in China's far west that has had a long history of discord between the authorities in Beijing and indigenous ethnic Uighurs, a Muslim population.
More than a million Muslims have been detained and persecuted in China's Xinjiang Province, according to human rights groups. China disputes the allegations.
"Such an approach will likely cement Chinese control over each of these contested areas, but also solidify opposition to such rule in a manner that will then generate further instability, and, cast a dark shadow over all of China in the years to come," Carlson said.
News that China intends to impose the national security law on Hong Kong sent the city's benchmark stock index tumbling Friday. The Hang Seng index closed down 5.6%, marking its worst one-day performance in nearly five years. Investors were concerned over what the policy action could mean for the Asian financial hub's future. Trump's harsh rhetoric on China was also pressuring sentiment on Wall Street.
Still, Andy Mok, a fellow at the Center for China and Globalization, a public policy think tank based in Beijing, said the measures unveiled by China "address a significant danger facing Hong Kong." Chinese officials and state-owned media have previously accused the U.S. of meddling in its affairs in Hong Kong for ideological reasons.
"The disruption and economic loss caused by foreign-instigated rioting last year was considerable and cannot be allowed to continue," he said.
"By tackling the problem at the (National People's Congress) China has demonstrated its commitment to honoring its commitment to 'one country, two systems' while acting decisively to counter the threats to Hong Kong."