It’s only been about 12 hours since its passage, but already the fallout from China’s new national security law for Hong Kong is keenly felt.
The law—which forbids still-undefined acts of secession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with foreign forces with sentences ranging up to life in prison—was passed unanimously on Tuesday morning by China’s rubber stamp legislature, and is seen by many as an attempt by Beijing to quash dissent in the restive city, which was rocked by a months-long, sometimes-violent pro-democracy protest movement last year.
By the afternoon, the Hong Kong Free Press was reporting that the law had already been signed by Chinese Premier Xi Jinping and inserted into Hong Kong’s Basic Law, effectively bypassing the need for local legislative approval.
The new legislation has been shrouded in secrecy throughout its drafting, and was reportedly only seen by a handful of Hong Kong delegates to the National People’s Congress before its passage.
State-run outlet Xinhua was expected to release more details about the law Tuesday afternoon, and Hong Kong delegates to the legislature and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference were asked to attend a meeting at China’s liaison office in the city at 3pm, presumably to be briefed on the bill, according to the South China Morning Post. However, as of press time, the full details of the law remained unreleased.
Even so, the effects of the law’s passage, even before it was scheduled to go into effect on Wednesday, were swift and far-reaching.
The HKFP reported that a pro-independence activist, Wayne Chan, had skipped bail and fled the territory over fears of arrest under the new law. Despite warning of “mass arrests” under the new law, Chan vowed to keep fighting from afar.
“But I promise you all, my departure does not mean I have given up. I know the door to Hong Kong independence has been opened,” he said.
China has repeatedly labeled advocating for Hong Kong independence as a “secessionist” act, one of the crimes outlawed under the new law. Two other pro-independence groups—the Hong Kong National Front and Studentlocalism—also announced plans to disband, HKFP reports.
Meanwhile, some of the city’s most outspoken pro-democratic figures—Joshua Wong, Nathan Law, Jeffrey Ngo, and Agnes Chow—announced that they would be withdrawing from party politics due to the law. Their party, Demosisto, had already been the subject of numerous legal entanglements related its advocacy for “self-determination” for Hong Kong.
On Twitter, Wong said that the passage of the new law “marks the end of Hong Kong that the world knew before.”
“If my voice will not be heard soon, I hope that the international community will continue to speak up for Hong Kong and step up concrete efforts to defend our last bit of freedom,” he said.”
On the international front, Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing Chief Executive Carrie Lam, who over the course of last year’s protests became the least popular leader in the city’s history, defended the controversial law’s passage before a meeting of the UN’s Human Rights Council this morning, accusing the law’s critics of hypocrisy.
“All those countries which have pointed their fingers at China have their own national security legislation in place,” she said, claiming without evidence that last year’s protests had been “fanned by external forces.”
The defense, however, did little to stave off criticism from overseas.
Japan, often reluctant to openly criticize other countries directly, called the passage of the law “regrettable,” the SCMP reports.
South Korea also added its voice to the chorus of concern, adding that it was “important for Hong Kong to continue developing amid stability while enjoying its high degree of autonomy.”
The U.S., meanwhile, already engaged in a heated diplomatic tit-for-tat with China over Hong Kong, announced in the hours just before the bill’s passage that Hong Kong’s preferential treatment under U.S. law was formally suspended, as were exports of defense equipment to the territory.
Referring to Beijing’s decision to “eviscerate Hong Kong’s freedoms,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the U.S. “can no longer distinguish between the export of controlled items to Hong Kong or to mainland China.”
China, as it has with recent moves by the U.S. to sanction officials seen as “undermining” Hong Kong’s autonomy, vowed to retaliate in kind.
“Intimidating China will never work,” said Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian. “In response to the U.S. mistaken action, China will take necessary countermeasures to firmly defend our own national interests.”
The law is expected to come into effect on Wednesday, which also marks 23 years since the city’s return to China by the British. Under the handover agreement, Hong Kong was meant to enjoy 50 years of a “high degree of autonomy” under the “one country, two systems” framework.
But the July 1 protests that have historically accompanied the handover anniversary have been banned for Wednesday for the first time in almost two decades. Organizers of this year’s march, which they had hoped to use to protest the passage of the national security law, had previously vowed not to withdraw their calls for protesters to gather, despite the police ban.
Government broadcaster RTHK, meanwhile, cited unnamed sources as saying police would deploy at least 3,000 officers to maintain order. Netizens, for their part, called for the protests to go forward.
Despite China’s PR putsch to assuage Hong Kongers’ widespread fears over the new law, worries that the law will be used to snuff out the city’s special freedoms were unlikely to be calmed by an op-ed in the state-run tabloid the Global Times last night.
“The few die-hard radical forces in Hong Kong should be warned that the national security law could never be overthrown by mobilizing enough people to protest in the streets as they did with the extradition bill last year,” the op-ed crowed, referring to last year’s protests.
“They have betrayed Hong Kong and their country. They have made the wrong bet, and now it's their last chance to stop their wrongdoings before it's too late.”