China on Tuesday warned that any attempts to to break up the country would be "doomed to failure," in an apparent warning to independence activists in Hong Kong, as rights groups hit out at moves to make the city more patriotic.
In a rousing patriotic speech at the close of the annual session of the country's parliament, the National People's Congress (NPC), President Xi Jinping told assembled delegates that "there can be no progress or development for a country rent by disunity."
In a reference to the wars of the 20th century, Xi called on people to recall the "grim times of foreign aggression," when the Chinese people fought "bloody battles to defeated vicious aggressors and defend national independence and freedom."
"Safeguarding national sovereignty and territorial integrity and realizing the complete reunification of the motherland is in the fundamental interest of the Chinese nation," Xi said.
"Any trick or maneuver aimed at splitting the motherland is doomed to failure, and will be subject to ... the punishment of history," he said.
In Hong Kong, Xi pledged to uphold the city's autonomy and separate identity as a capitalist jurisdiction.
But he also said Hong Kong and Macau, which returned to Chinese rule in 1997 and 1999 under a treaty promising the maintenance of their existing systems for 50 years, should become more integrated with mainland China.
"We will actively support Hong Kong and Macau in integrating into the broader national development picture," Xi said. "We must strengthen Hong Kong and Macau compatriots' awareness of and love for their country."
Rights groups are increasingly concerned over a string of high-profile interventions by the NPC in the city's political life, including the removal of six pro-democracy lawmakers whose oaths of allegiance were judged invalid by Beijing.
"Hong Kong people have seen their right to free expression increasingly threatened under Chinese Communist Party rule," the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a statement on Tuesday, warning that a new law forbidding "insults" to China's national anthem could place further restrictions on the formerly freewheeling city.
A policy paper submitted to the Legislative Council (LegCo) last week said the law would require anyone present in a public place when the "March of the Volunteers" is being played to "stand up and show respect."
Use of the rousing revolutionary tune will be banned in advertising, at private funerals, or as background music in public venues.
The paper suggests that anyone found "insulting" the national anthem face a maximum penalty of HK$50,000 or three years' imprisonment.
"Anyone who deliberately and openly changes the words or music, or otherwise insulting the national anthem by singing it in a distorting or derogatory way will be breaking the law," the paper said.
HRW said the vagueness of the wording would encourage political interpretations of the law by the authorities when implementing the legislation, which is required by Beijing.
"International human rights law permits restrictions on speech to protect national security or public order, but only when absolutely necessary and strictly proportionate to the risk of harm to those interests," HRW said.
"The proposed law does not meet this requirement and would violate such rights guaranteed under Hong Kong’s functional constitution, the Basic Law."
'No market for independence'
Meanwhile, Ip Kwok-him, who represents Hong Kong at the NPC, said there could be no talk of independence for the city, a topic which only began to be publicly debated after the failure of the 2014 pro-democracy Occupy Central movement failed to win any concessions on universal suffrage from Beijing.
"There is no market for independence for Hong Kong [as an idea]," Ip said. "Pretty much everyone in Hong Kong society rejects the notion, and always has done."
Independence activist Andy Chan, who heads the Hong Kong National Party, said his party had been set up to remove "ideological barriers" to thinking about independence, and appears to have succeeded.
"They may have a zero-tolerance policy ... but we will continue to speak our minds with courage, and actually, a lot of people have listened politely," Chan said. "But even if they don't support it, they have at least started to think that it isn't such a taboo topic after all, but something that can be debated. That's why I think we have been successful."
Ivan Choy, a senior politics lecturer at the Chinese University of Hong Kong said Beijing has continually undermined the rule of law in Hong Kong in recent years, and that many in the city fear that its autonomy is no longer a priority for the authorities.
"I believe that in recent years the concept [that Beijing enjoys] full right of governance led to some Legislative Council (LegCo) members losing their seats in the past few years," Choy told RFA. "This was all based on an interpretation [from the NPC standing committee]."
"People are very worried about ... whether the central government will interfere more and more in Hong Kong affairs," he said.
Reported by Wong Lok-to and Wen Yuqing for RFA's Cantonese Service.Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.