A national security law introduced Friday at the opening session to China's National People's Congress to tackle the ongoing political unrest in Hong Kong would allow Beijing to send its security agents to operate freely in the former British Colony to "fulfill relevant duties to safeguard national security in accordance with the law."
Chinese law enforcement and security agents previously had no purview in Hong Kong under the "One Country, Two Systems" arrangement that allowed the Chinese international financial hub a certain degree of autonomy to runs its own affairs.
The proposed national security law, which Chinese authorities deemed an "absolute necessity" and is guaranteed to pass, is the latest and most far-reaching attempt by Beijing to tighten its grip on Hong Kong.
The U.S. reacted swiftly, calling the decision "a death knell for the high degree of autonomy Beijing promised for Hong Kong," Secretary of State Michael Pompeo wrote in a statement issued Friday morning, and "urges Beijing to reconsider its disastrous proposal."
"Any decision impinging on Hong Kong's autonomy and freedoms as guaranteed under the Sino-British Joint Declaration and the Basic Law would inevitably impact our assessment of One Country, Two Systems and the status of the territory," the statement added.
Hong Kong holds a special economic status under U.S. export and trade regulations; China's new proposal threatens, by some estimates, $38 billion of trade between the U.S. and Hong Kong and imperils the offices hundreds of U.S. companies have there.
For 23 years after Hong Kong was handed over by the British to the Chinese, successive Hong Kong governments have been unable to enact their own national security law, which was required by their mini-constitution known as the Basic Law. Each time they tried, it was met with fierce opposition from opposition lawmakers and a large number of residents.
An attempt in 2003 to push through a local national security law, just as Hong Kong was emerging from the devastating SARS epidemic, brought half a million protestors out on the streets. The law was shelved indefinitely.
This time, as COVID-19 is purportedly under control in China, Beijing is planning to bypass the Hong Kong legislature altogether and enforce their own law by decree.
Beijing says that the law "takes necessary measures to establish and improve the legal system and enforcement mechanism" to "safeguard national security, as well as prevent, stop and punish activities endangering national security."
It specifically takes aim at "separatist subversive, infiltrating and sabotage activities in Hong Kong by foreign and external forces."
The political unrest that rocked Hong Kong since last June was high on the agenda as China's annual parliamentary session opened solemnly Friday in Beijing after being delayed over two months because of the novel coronavirus pandemic. A moment of silence was observed in the packed Great Hall of People with thousands of delegates from all over the country, all tested for the coronavirus beforehand and all wearing masks except for President Xi and the ruling Politburo of the Chinese Communist Party.
The COVID-19 pandemic has left its imprint on the proceedings, which Beijing usually uses to set its agenda and targets for the year. It is commonly referred to as China's most important political event of the year. Due to the "great [economic] uncertainty" resulting from the pandemic, Beijing has, for the first time in recent history, not set a target for its gross domestic product for 2020.
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, however, did announce that the country would increase its defense spending by 6.6% as the relationship between China and the United States continues to crater.
The news of the Hong Kong national security legislation caused the Hong Kong Hang Seng Index to sink more than 5.6%, its largest one-day decline in five years, over uncertainty on Hong Kong's future as an open financial hub and the prospect of street protests, which had abated amidst strict social distancing rules, erupting once more.
"This is the end of Hong Kong. This is the end of 'One Country Two Systems.' This is it. Make no mistake about it," pro-democracy lawmaker Dennis Kwok, who has been the target of Beijing's recent ire, told the media after hearing the news of the planned law Thursday night.
This announcement comes just as Hong Kong has gotten its COVID-19 situation under control with less than a handful of local cases over the past month, so why now?
Hong Kong as weak link?
After the often violent and anti-Beijing protests grew out of opposition to the now-withdrawn extradition bill, Beijing likely saw Hong Kong as a weak link in China's defenses for Western powers to exploit, especially as the anti-China rhetoric has become a bipartisan rallying point in the United States. Throughout 2019, Beijing pinned the blame on "foreign black hands" for fomenting the sustained protests, which were seen at the time as the most serious challenge to the Communist Party in a generation.
A People's Daily editorial, which is the official newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party, wrote that the situation in Hong Kong is no longer a local issue and that " to safeguard national security is a national matter, not just a matter of Hong Kong."
The state-run China Daily editorial argued that the law would serve as a "testing kit for an Anti-Beijing virus."
"Those that find the news encouraging and comforting are invariably those who have the [Hong Kong's] stability, prosperity and rule of law in their hearts," it wrote. "Those speaking ill of it mostly have an ax to grind when it comes to the Chinese mainland."
The U.S. State Department delayed a report earlier this month on Hong Kong's autonomy in anticipation of a Beijing move on Hong Kong. If the U.S. deems Hong Kong insufficiently autonomous, it could sanction officials and revoke its trade status and treat Hong Kong just like another mainland city. A bipartisan bill was announced Thursday that would impose sanctions on Chinese officials and banks that do business with entities found to enforce the proposed national security law.
Trump to address the move 'very strongly'
Even President Donald Trump promised a strong response if the proposal moves forward.
"If it happens, we'll address that issue very strongly," Trump told reporters on the White House South Lawn on his way to Michigan.
After the law was introduced, Hong Kong's embattled leader Carrie Lam released a statement from Beijing, where she is attending the meetings, saying the law "only targets acts of secession, subverting state power and organizing and carrying out terrorist activities, as well as activities interfering with the [Hong Kong's] internal affairs by foreign or external forces."
"They will not affect the legitimate rights and freedoms enjoyed by Hong Kong residents under the law, or the independent judicial power, including that of final adjudication, exercised by the Judiciary in Hong Kong."
She did not address the prospect of mainland "security organs of the Central People's Government," setting up agencies within the borders of Hong Kong.
The Hong Kong national security proposal is expected to pass in the parliament next Friday and a full bill would move to a vote and would be enacted into law in Hong Kong by the end of June.
China proposes strict national security law to combat political unrest in Hong Kong