China’s parliament approved a decision on Thursday to go forward with national security legislation for Hong Kong that democracy activists in the city and Western countries fear could erode its freedoms and jeopardise its role as a global financial hub.
China says the legislation will aim to tackle secession, subversion, terrorism and foreign interference in the city but the plan, unveiled in Beijing last week, triggered the first big protests in Hong Kong for months.
Riot police were out in force in Hong Kong as its lawmakers debated another piece of legislation, a bill to criminalise disrespect of China’s national anthem, while the United States piled on pressure aimed at preserving the city’s autonomy.
Dozens of protesters gathered in a shopping mall to chant slogans but there was no repeat of disturbances the previous day when police made 360 arrests as thousands took to the streets in anger over the anthem bill and the national security legislation proposed by China.
Last year, the city was rocked for months by often violent pro-democracy demonstrations over an unsuccessful bid to introduce a law governing extradition to China.
The Chinese government’s security law for the city is fuelling fear in Hong Kong and beyond that Beijing is imposing its authority and eroding the high degree of autonomy the former British colony has enjoyed under a “one country, two systems” formula since it returned to Chinese rule in 1997.
Members of China’s mostly rubberstamp parliament, the National People’s Congress, in the Great Hall of the People to the west of Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, burst into prolonged applause when the tally showed 2,878 votes to one in favour of moving forward with legislation, with six abstentions.
Details of the law are expected to be drawn up in coming weeks. It is expected to be enacted before September.
Chinese authorities and the Beijing-backed government in Hong Kong say there is no threat to the city’s autonomy and the new law would be tightly focused.
China’s Premier Li Keqiang said the law would be good for Hong Kong’s long-term stability and prosperity and the “one country, two systems” formula would remain a national policy.
Conflict between China and the United States would harm both sides while both stand to gain from cooperation, he told a news conference.
Hong Kong’s Beijing-backed leader Carrie Lam said her government would work with Beijing to complete the legislative work as soon as possible.
“The law will not affect the rights and freedoms enjoyed by Hong Kong residents,” she said in a statement welcoming the Chinese parliament’s vote.
Democracy campaigners in the city were despondent, however.
“This is the death knell for Hong Kong, make no mistake of it, this is the end of ‘one country, two systems’ … the Hong Kong that we loved, a free Hong Kong,” pro-democracy lawmaker Dennis Kwok told reporters.