June 29 (UPI) — In a move that is expected to not only strain relations between China and the West but attract retaliatory measures, China’s top legislative body passed a controversial national security law on Tuesday that critics say will threaten the autonomy of Hong Kong and the freedoms of its citizens.
The law — which criminalizes secession, sedition, subversion, terrorism and working with foreign actors to undermine the national security of the People’s Republic of China in Hong Kong — was unanimously passed by the congress’ standing committee Tuesday, local media South China Morning Post and public broadcaster RTHK reported, citing anonymous sources.
Little was known about the law after it was approved by the congress in late May, but last week China’s state-run Xinhua News released details that suggest it will expand Beijing’s oversight of Hong Kong, which has been rocked by pro-democracy protests for nearly a year but which have simmered in the past few months due to the coronavirus pandemic.
According to the law, the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region will be responsible for punishing those who commit acts that endanger national security, to establish a national security commission whose head will be appointed by the central government and to create a national security office in Hong Kong.
State-run Global Times also reported the law will charge the region’s chief politician with appointing judges to try such cases, threatening the autonomy of Hong Kong’s legal system from the communist mainland courts.
Tam Yiu-chung, a Hong Kong politician on the National People’s Congress Standing Committee, told reporters that under the law, offenses will carry a sentence of three to 10 years in prison. However, RTHK reported that terms could be much higher than that.
The law was passed on the last day of the three-day congress after being deliberated on Sunday and is expected to go into effect July 1 — the 23rd anniversary of Hong Kong returning to Chinese rule from British authority.
The region was returned in 1997 under the promise that it would maintain its autonomy from mainland China for 50 years established in the U.N.-filed Sino British Joint Declaration.
It has since functioned under the so-called One Country, Two Systems structure, but many fear the new national security law will all but scrap that governmental framework — U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo described the law after it was announced as its “death knell.”
A few hours before China’s congress passed the law on Tuesday, the United States pre-emptively ended U.S. exports of defense equipment to Hong Kong and restricted its access to high technology products as it begins to end its special trade status with the region.
“The Chinese Communist Party’s decision to eviscerate Hong Kong’s freedoms has forced the Trump administration to re-evaluate its policies toward the territory,” Pompeo said in a statement.
“The United States is forced to take this action to protect U.S. national security,” he said. “We can no longer distinguish between the export of controlled items to Hong Kong or to mainland China. We cannot risk these items falling into the hands of the People’s Liberation Army, whose primary purpose is to uphold the dictatorship of the CCP by any means necessary.”
Pompeo added they are examining other policies and will take “additional measures to reflect the reality on the ground in Hong Kong.”
Late last week, Pompeo also imposed visa restrictions on CCP officials the United States blames for undermining Hong Kong’s autonomy. On Monday, Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said China would retaliate with visa restrictions on U.S. citizens who commit “egregious conducts on Hong Kong-related issues.”
Beijing has repeatedly condemned foreign nations, but specifically the United States over, interfering in what it calls China’s internal business.
The law has attracted widespread international condemnation, with Britain vowing to overhaul its country’s visa system creating a possible path to citizenship for some 3 million Hong Kong residents.
The law was tabled following months of pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong that not only grabbed international attention but threatened the region’s stability.
Prominent Hong Kong protester Joshua Wong described the law as the end of the region as it is known and the beginning of a “reign of terror.”
“With sweeping powers and ill-defined law, the city will turn into a secret police state,” he said via Twitter. “Hong Kong protesters now face high possibilities of being extradited to China’s courts for trials and life sentences.”
However, he said despite the threat of prison, Hong Kong protesters will “continue to fight for our freedoms and democracy” for future generations.
“When justice fails, our fight goes on,” he said.