The ruling Chinese Communist Party on Monday said it would carry through its plan to impose a draconian sedition and subversion law on Hong Kong, bypassing the city's legislature, claiming that anti-government protesters had engaged in "terrorist activities" in recent months.
China's National People's Congress (NPC) -- which usually passes any government proposal put before it -- will "vote" on the plan on Thursday.
NPC chairman Li Zhanshu told delegates at the NPC annual session on Monday that he expects that "this important legislative task will be completed by delegates working together."
Former Hong Kong chief executive Tung Chee-hwa, now a political adviser to the Chinese government, said the law would be "good medicine" aimed at ending months of social unrest in the city.
Vice premier Han Zheng repeated Beijing's narrative that the protesters who have resisted widespread violence from riot police with barricades, bricks, Molotov cocktails and other makeshift weapons are "terrorists."
"What country in the world would tolerate terrorism?" Han told the NPC. "The national security law for Hong Kong is aimed at a very small minority of people in Hong Kong who engage in violent actions in the name of Hong Kong independence."
Han said only a "a very small number of people" will ultimately be punished, and that the law was intended to protect people's basic rights, economic interests and property.
Meanwhile, customs authorities in Hong Kong are being accused of engaging in politicized enforcement of trading regulations after a second member of the pro-democracy group Demosisto was arrested for allegedly lying about the origin of face-masks being sold in Hong Kong.
The end of Hong Kong's promised autonomy?
The group's vice chairman Isaac Cheng and activist Tobias Leung have been arrested over a suspected violation of the Trade Descriptions Ordinance for selling masks labeled "not made in China."
"Customs strongly condemns any false accusation maliciously alleging that its law enforcement action against the trader is 'political repression'," the city's customs service said in a statement.
Beijing revealed plans on May 21 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 many say signals the end of Hong Kong's promised autonomy and traditional freedoms of speech and association, state security police from mainland China will be allowed to set up shop in Hong Kong to fulfill their duties under the new law, according to a precis of the decision supplied by state-run Xinhua news agency.
The plan has been widely condemned by foreign governments and rights groups as a breach of China's obligations under the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration, a U.N.-registered treaty governing the handover.
Rights groups said the law will mean Beijing can ensure that only voices and activities that toe the party line will be allowed in Hong Kong, which was promised to continuation of its traditional freedoms of the person, publication and association under the handover agreement.
The proposed legal move comes at a time when the U.S. is reviewing, under the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, whether to continue to treat Hong Kong as a separate jurisdiction from China, given Beijing's growing insistence on wielding direct political power in the city.
The Hong Kong Bar Association (HKBA) said the NPC has "no power" to impose a law on Hong Kong without its passage through the Legislative Council (LegCo), however.
In a statement issued on Monday, the HKBA said the plan to insert the law into Annex III of the city's mini-constitution, the Basic Law, was improper, as only laws relating to defense and foreign affairs could be directly enacted in this way.
U.S. shifts course
It said Hong Kong has the right and duty to enact national security laws using its own legislature. Analysts have predicted that LegCo will likely see a strong influx of pro-democracy lawmakers in forthcoming general elections in September, and Beijing has said it is keen to avoid "obstruction" to the law in LegCo.
The HKBA said there is no indication that the national security law will protect Hong Kong people's civil and political rights as laid down in the Basic Law, a concern that has repeatedly been highlighted by human rights groups.
It added: "It is entirely unclear how the proposed agencies set up in [Hong Kong] will operate," citing an article in the Basic Law which bans Chinese government departments from operating in Hong Kong.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has said the imposition of national security legislation would sound the "death knell" for the high degree of autonomy promised to Hong Kong.
The White House on May 20 signaled an end to the U.S.' two-decades-old policy of engagement with China, vowing in a new strategy report to combat Beijing's attempts to impose a "new world order" based on its model of authoritarian government.
Deepening engagement had done little to encourage fundamental economic and political change in China, the 20-page report said. It said the U.S. will now adopt a "competitive approach" to the country to resist growing Chinese influence and "compel Beijing to cease or reduce actions harmful to the United States' vital national interests," the report said.
Beijing has said the Sino-British Declaration is no more than a "historical document," and warned other countries not to interfere in its internal affairs.
In Washington, the U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China has called on the Trump administration to lead a global coalition to protect U.S. interests and support Hongkongers, using the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act of 2019.
Former British colonial governor Chris Patten has called on G7 nations to stand up for Hong Kong’s freedom, describing President Xi Jinping's administration as an “enemy of open societies."
Writing in the Financial Times, Patten warned that Xi is launching an all-out attack on liberal values in Hong Kong by preparing to send in the state security police.
"With [their] well-earned reputation for coercion and torture, [they] won't be there to sell dim sum,” Patten wrote.
Reported by Gao Feng for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.