China has passed a controversial security law giving it new powers over Hong Kong, deepening fears for the city’s freedoms, the BBC has learned.
Last month China stunned the city when it said it would criminalise any act of secession, subversion, terrorism or collusion with foreign forces.
The move came after angry protests last year – sparked by another law – which became a pro-democracy movement.
Critics say this new law poses an even greater threat to Hong Kong’s identity.
They warn it will undermine Hong Kong’s judicial independence and destroy the city’s unique freedoms, not seen on mainland China.
A draft of the law was not made public before it was pushed through, which means people in the city will not have seen details of the measures they now have to abide by.
Hong Kong was handed back to China from British control in 1997, but under a special agreement that guaranteed certain rights for 50 years.
So the law has drawn harsh international condemnation and also sparked demonstrations in Hong Kong ever since it was announced by Beijing in May.
China says the law is needed to tackle unrest and instability in the city and rejects criticism as interference in its affairs.
What does the new law do?
China has not officially confirmed the law has been passed, but the BBC has been told that it went through unanimously in a session of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress in Beijing.
It is expected to be added to Hong Kong statute books later in the day and comes a day before the 23rd anniversary of the handover from Britain to China – a date usually marked by pro-democracy protests.
It would make criminal any act of secession, subversion of the central government, terrorism and collusion with foreign or external forces.
A new office in Hong Kong would deal with national security cases, but would also have other powers such as overseeing education about national security in Hong Kong schools.
In addition, the city will have to establish its own national security commission to enforce the laws, with a Beijing-appointed adviser.
Hong Kong’s chief executive will have the power to appoint judges to hear national security cases, a move which has raised fears about judicial independence.
Importantly, Beijing will have power over how the law should be interpreted. If the law conflicts with any Hong Kong law, the Beijing law takes priority.
How will it change Hong Kong?
For many, the very nature of the law undermines the freedoms that set Hong Kong apart from the rest of China – and helped defined the character of the city.
People in Hong Kong prized civil liberties such as free speech, the right to protest and an entirely independent and robust judiciary.
Critics say that in effect this law could silence dissent and will extend the influence of the Chinese Communist Party over various aspects of Hong Kong life.
Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam has previously dismissed such fears, saying this was a “responsible” move to protect the law-abiding majority.
She has said that Hong Kong’s freedoms, vibrancy and core values will be preserved.
‘A tool to suppress political agitation’
Analysis by Stephen McDonell, BBC China correspondent
Hong Kong’s sweeping new security law is a frighteningly open-ended tool to suppress political agitation.
Like similar laws on the Chinese mainland it appears that it can be manipulated to meet the needs of the Communist Party as required to crush almost any action deemed threatening.
Unlike elsewhere in China, Hong Kong has an independent judiciary. For this reason, the Party’s leadership was not going to leave interpretation of this law in the hands of just any old judges.
No. Those who’ll be allowed to preside in these matters will be hand-picked by Carrie Lam, the city’s leader who was effectively installed by Beijing.
So. prior to the new security bill which actions by activists – no matter how subversive – could not be dealt with under existing laws? What were “extremists” getting away with to warrant this new legislation?
Bomb making? No. Smashing up buildings? No. Meeting with international NGO’s to talk about the city’s deteriorating freedoms? Ahhhh. Perhaps. Publicly advocating Hong Kong independence? Almost certainly.
The more that Beijing, under Xi Jinping’s leadership, has sought to control Hong Kong, the more it has driven residents into the pro-democracy camp.
But he is playing a long game – and whatever the promises made at the time of the handover, this was not going to continue on his watch. Enter the security law.
What has the reaction been?
One of the city’s most prominent activists, Joshua Wong, on Tuesday said he would quit the pro-democracy group Demosisto he spearheaded until now.
Rights group Amnesty International describes the law as “the greatest threat to human rights in the city’s recent history”.
Taiwan on Tuesday even warned its citizens of risks in visiting Hong Kong.
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But there was widespread international criticism even before the law was passed.
Washington has threatened to end Hong Kong’s special status trade relationship while the European Parliament voted to take China to the International Court of Justice in The Hague should the law be imposed.
The UK said it would change its immigration rules and offer millions of people in Hong Kong “a route to citizenship” if China went ahead with the legislation.
Why is China imposing the law?
Hong Kong was handed over to China from Britain in 1997 under a “one country, two systems” principle and with a mini-constitution called the Basic Law. It allowed freedom of assembly and speech, an independent judiciary and some democratic rights seen nowhere else in mainland China.
Hong Kong was also expected to enact its own national security law, but its unpopularity meant that had never been done.
In recent years, Hong Kong has repeatedly seen waves of protests against Beijing’s influence and demanding more rights.
Then, in 2019, protests over an extradition law turned violent and evolved into a broad anti-China and pro-democracy movement.