More than 80 human rights groups from around the world have called on Beijing to scrap its plan to impose draconian subversion legislation on Hong Kong, saying the move will destroy freedoms promised to the city under the 1997 handover agreement.
China has said it will impose national security legislation targeting "actions and activities" deemed subversive, seditious, instigated by foreign forces, or supportive of independence, on the city.
Now, more than 80 civil society groups said in a joint letter published by the New York-based group Human Rights Watch (HRW) that the planned law is a "devastating assault on human rights" and should be abandoned.
"China should abandon this effort to impose a national security law on Hong Kong immediately," HRW China director Sophie Richardson said in a statement. "No government should invoke national security as a justification for repression."
In a move widely condemned by foreign governments and rights groups as signaling the end of Hong Kong's autonomy and status as a separate legal jurisdiction, the law will be imposed on the city by the ruling Chinese Communist Party, bypassing Hong Kong's Legislative Council (LegCo).
The move has been widely criticized by foreign governments as being in breach of China's obligations under the 1984 treaty governing the 1997 handover of Hong Kong, and as paving the way for further political prosecutions of peaceful critics of the government, democracy campaigners, and rights activists.
Chen Yue, head of the Hong Kong-based Chinese Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group, which signed the open letter, said: "We are very worried that this law will be used to target and persecute dissidents and human rights organizations."
"But with enough international pressure, I think it may still be possible to influence Beijing."
Beijing claims the move was made necessary by months of street protests and clashes sparked by Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam's plans to allow extradition to mainland China.
Lam withdrew that legal amendment after months of protest, but pro-democracy politicians and activists say the new law will further erode the city's promised freedoms of expression and association, as it will allow China's feared state security police to operate in Hong Kong, a move which was explicitly banned by the city's mini-constitution, the Basic Law.
The legislation is likely to be discussed at a forthcoming meeting of China's National People's Congress standing committee from June 18-20, or at a special session at the end of the month, according to the open letter.
'Brought in to terrify'
While the details of the forthcoming legislation remain unclear, comparable legislation in the mainland criminalizes overly broad, vague "offenses" that can encompass any criticism of the government and be used against people peacefully exercising and defending their human rights, the letter said.
Civic Party lawmaker Jeremy Tam said the law is being brought in to terrify the people of Hong Kong, following months of mass protests sparked by plans to erode the city's freedoms by allowing extradition to mainland China.
"The whole thing is very clear," Tam said. "They want to use this national security legislation to create an atmosphere of fear [so nobody speaks or acts against the government]."
"This is an attack on the entire pro-democracy faction [in LegCo], whether it be through their candidacy or their ability to continue in politics," he said.
The letter came as pro-democracy lawmakers in Hong Kong hit out at comments by the city's constitutional affairs secretary Erick Tsang, who suggested that candidates in September's Legislative Council (LegCo) elections could be disqualified if they fail to support the new law.
Tsang told reporters that while the decision on whether to debar electoral candidates isn't his to make, it should be "only natural" to expect them to support the new law.
No room left for dissent
Democratic Party chairman Wu Chi-wai said Tsang's comments showed that the government is no longer willing to tolerate dissenting views in politics.
"This shows the government only accepts one voice," Wu said. "[Anyone] who has a different view becomes someone who challenges [the] Chinese regime."
Meanwhile, a recent statement from Beijing's Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office (HKMAO) gave an indication of the kinds of political speech and actions that would be considered criminal under the law, mentioning former 2014 pro-democracy student leader Joshua Wong, who now leads the political group Demosisto, by name.
"Joshua Wong and Isaac Cheng of Demosisto are adding another chapter to their criminal record," the office said in a statement on its website, blaming "black hands" and "foreign influences" for corrupting the city's youth.
Demosisto recently announced it would run an unofficial referendum on the national security law, something that the authorities have dismissed, saying "there is no such thing."
"[Civic Party] lawmaker Alvin Yeung has also shamelessly incited young people to keep going, saying that the best people see something through until the end," the HKMAO statement said.
"The core values of Hong Kong must be such that all remarks that incite "independence of Hong Kong" and violence will disappear in schools," it said.
Reported by Wong Lok-to for RFA's Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.