China's leadership on Thursday moved ahead with a draconian national security law it plans to impose on Hong Kong, sparking concerns that the new regime will target peaceful dissidents and pro-democracy politicians, especially those accused of "colluding with overseas forces."
The draft National Security Law for the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) of the People's Republic of China was submitted to the National People's Congress (NPC) standing committee on Thursday, state media reported.
The committee is meeting until the end of this month to decide on forthcoming changes to Chinese laws, which are assured of near-unanimous support in the rubber-stamp NPC.
"The draft makes explicit stipulations on what constitutes four categories of criminal acts and their corresponding criminal responsibilities," state news agency Xinhua reported on Thursday.
"These include acts of secession, subversion of state power, terrorist activities, and collusion with foreign or external forces to endanger national security," it said.
It said the law targets activities and actions that currently occur in Hong Kong, and that must be "prevented, stopped and punished."
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.
The announcement that the NPC standing committee will now consider the draft law came as U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said he had put pressure on his Chinese counterpart Yang Jiechi over Beijing's handling of the year-long protest movement in Hong Kong.
Beijing claims the new law 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.
Extradition still possible
Hong Kong's representative on the NPC standing committee, Tam Yiu-chung, has warned that suspects in high-profile national security cases under Beijing's direct supervision could still face extradition to China anyway.
And 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.
Hong Kong officials say they are preparing to cooperate fully with Beijing's requirements for implementation, including handing some cases over to Chinese state security police, and have sought to calm public fears over the new law.
But journalists in the city said the law would seriously affect press freedom.
A survey by the Hong Kong Journalists' Association (HKJA) found that 98 percent of respondents thought that the law would seriously or considerably affect freedom of the press. And 92 percent had concerns about their personal safety after the law is passed.
"Some respondents pointed out that the law enforcement agencies would target the press, foreign journalists would be barred from visa application, and people would avoid doing press interviews," the group said in a report published on its website on Thursday.
Meanwhile, opposition lawmakers in Hong Kong raised concerns about a change of wording in the draft national security law, which now criminalizes "collusion with foreign forces" instead of "intervention of foreign forces."
Definition of collusion 'too vague'
But Tanya Chan, convenor of the pro-democracy camp in LegCo, said the legal definition of "collusion" is too vague.
"As far as I can remember, there is no concept about collusion either in Hong Kong or in China, so the NPC may give this word a very wide definition in order to enlarge [its scope],” she told government broadcaster RTHK.
Democratic Party chairman Wu Chi-wai said he believes the new wording means some prominent pro-democracy figures will be targeted when the law is implemented, citing , prominent figures like Martin Lee, Emily Lau, and the leaders of Demosisto.
The U.S. has said it is now considering sanctions against Hong Kong and Chinese officials judged to have violated the human rights and constitutional freedoms of the city's seven million residents, under legislation passed last November.
Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece the People's Daily said in a commentary on Thursday that the purpose of such sanctions is to suppress China.
Hui Ching, research director at the Hong Kong Zhiming Institute, said Beijing is willing to negotiate with the U.S. on any issue except national security, in a bid to rekindle bilateral economic and trade ties.
"Their new starting point is that China's national security requirements must be respected, but that everything else is up for discussion," Hui Ching said.
"The main significance of [the Pompeo-Yang] meeting isn't what consensus can be reached at the moment, but whether it can be used as a starting point to revisit certain issues and seek common ground in the final stage of President Trump's term in office," he said.
Reported by Gao Feng for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Man Hoi-tsan for the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.