China's National People's Congress on Friday revealed plans to send its feared state security agents into Hong Kong to pursue people suspected of "sedition," "subversion," or to be doing the work of 'foreign forces' during the city's months-long protest movement.
In a move that likely signals the end of Hong Kong's promised autonomy and traditional freedoms of speech and association, the ruling Chinese Communist Party tabled a draft "decision" to China's National People's Congress (NPC) on the first day of its annual session.
Citing "notable national security risks" in Hong Kong, NPC vice chairman Wang Chen said "forceful measures must be taken to prevent, stop and punish such activities," state news agency Xinhua reported.
Under the terms of the handover, Hong Kong was expected to bring in legislation banning acts of "treason, secession, sedition [or] subversion," Wang told a news conference in Beijing on Friday. The laws were also intended "to prohibit foreign political organizations from conducting political activities in Hong Kong, and to prohibit political organizations from establishing ties with foreign political organizations."
"More than 20 years after Hong Kong's return, however, these laws are yet to materialize due to sabotage and obstruction by those trying to sow trouble in Hong Kong and China at large, as well as external hostile forces," Wang said.
The decision will enable the authorities to "prevent, stop and punish" any activities deemed by Beijing to be subversive, or instigated by "foreign forces."
When needed, state security police from mainland China will set up shop in Hong Kong to fulfil their duties under the new law, according to a precis of the decision supplied by Xinhua.
Once the decision is approved by the NPC, the NPC standing committee will formulate the necessary legislation and insert it into Annex 3 of Hong Kong's mini-constitution, the Basic Law, whereupon it will become law in Hong Kong, without the need for scrutiny by the city's Legislative Council (LegCo), the report said.
The NPC standing committee would continue to "actively push" the Hong Kong authorities to build "special institutions, enforcement mechanisms and law enforcement forces," to implement the laws in the city, Xinhua quoted Wang as saying.
End of autonomy
Commentators in the city said the announcement had marked the end of Hong Kong's promised autonomy under the "one country, two systems" formula.
Civil Human Rights Front convenor Jimmy Sham, who organized several peaceful protests last year, including three attended by more than a million people, said it was still unclear what is meant by "subversion of state power," or "interference by foreign forces."
But he called on the city's seven million people to come out on the streets to oppose the new law.
"[In 2003], half a million of us stood against [this] legislation, and up to two million of us stood up against the extradition laws [last year]," Sham said. "I want to tell everyone in Hong Kong ... that they should stand up now, not just for Hong Kong's human rights, democracy and the rule of law, but also for your livelihoods."
"I hope that [next time] there will be more than two million of us," he said.
Chung Kim-wah, assistant professor of social policy at Hong Kong's Polytechnic University, said the NPC decision paves the way for people to be targeted for their speech and writing under subversion and sedition laws, much as they already are in mainland China.
"If you use terms like subversion or state security, you can make them mean whatever you want," Chung said. "That could mean that just calling for one person, one vote could result in accusations that you are subverting the regime."
"This is a danger to Hong Kong people across the board, and to our way of doing things," he said.
Former 2014 pro-democracy protest leader Joshua Wong, who now heads the political party Demosisto, said the NPC's move is a form of revenge against those who joined the protest movement last year.
"This is payback time for the success of the people of Hong Kong in persuading the U.S. to pass the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act last year," Wong said.
"[Under the proposals], we could be charged for trying to promote human rights, democracy and the rule of law for Hong Kong internationally," he said, but said international lobbying would continue.
Rubber stamp NPC
Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam dismissed the fears, saying her administration would work with the NPC to bring in the new legislation as soon as possible.
The NPC, which has never rejected a draft law or proposal put before it, will "vote" on the decision next Thursday.
Pro-democracy lawmakers said Beijing is demolishing Hong Kong's autonomy.
"It’s a complete disruption of the Hong Kong system of course when they impose a national security organization in Hong Kong, set up by the Chinese Communist Party in Hong Kong,” Lee Cheuk-yan, former lawmaker and secretary of the Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China, told journalists.
He said it is a signal that Beijing is directly taking control of the city.
Democratic Party lawmaker Helena Wong said that allowing state security police to operate in Hong Kong meant that not even the Hong Kong government would be able to regulate them.
The Justice & Peace Commission of the Catholic Diocese said it is concerned the national security laws will be used to suppress religious activities, government broadcaster RTHK reported.
The American Chamber of Commerce in Hong kong said the fact that LegCo was being bypassed could jeopardize international business in the city.
"Hong Kong today stands as a model of free trade, strong governance, free flow of information and efficiency," AmCham chairman Robert Grieves said in a statement. "No one wins if the foundation for Hong Kong’s role as a prime international business and financial center is eroded."
AmCham president Tara Joseph added: "People may also ask whether Beijing’s concern over foreign interference adds an element of risk to foreigners living here."
The Hang Seng Index plummeted around 1,349 points on the announcement, on the back of major falls in real estate companies.
Reported by Qiao Long, Tseng Yat-yiu and Man Hoi-tsan for RFA's Mandarin and Cantonese Services. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.