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China set to propose national security legislation concerning Hong Kong

China will propose national security legislation for Hong Kong in response to last year's often violent pro-democracy protests that plunged the city into its deepest turmoil since it returned to Chinese rule in 1997, a newspaper and a source said on Thursday.

Beijing legislation could roil Hong Kong, further complicate tense relations with U.S.

National People's Congress spokesperson Zhang Yesui, seen in March, said on the eve of the parliamentary session that more details on legislation that could affect Hong Kong will be announced Friday. (Greg Baker/AFP via Getty Images)

China will propose national security laws for Hong Kong in response to the often-violent pro-democracy protests last year that plunged the city into its deepest turmoil since it returned to Chinese rule in 1997, a parliamentary spokesperson and the state news agency Xinhua said on Thursday.

The official's statement confirmed what three people with direct knowledge of the matter told Reuters, potentially sparking fresh anti-China protests in the former British colony, which enjoys many freedoms not allowed on the mainland.

"In light of the new circumstances and need, the National People's Congress (NPC) is exercising its constitutional power to establish a new legal framework and enforcement mechanism to safeguard national security in Hong Kong," Zhang Yesui, the spokesperson for the legislature, said.

He was speaking at a late-night briefing on the eve of the start of China's annual parliamentary session. Further details would be given on Friday, he added.

WATCH | Chinese proposal takes aim at Hong Kong's pro-democracy movement:

The Chinese government is about to impose harsh new security measures on Hong Kong, which could further rile up the pro-democracy movement instead of tamp it down. 2:03

The Hong Kong dollar weakened on the news.

Xinhua said a preparatory meeting for a Chinese parliament session adopted an agenda that included an item to review a bill "on establishing and improving the legal system and enforcement mechanisms for the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region to safeguard national security."

'This is the end of Hong Kong'

Earlier Thursday, the South China Morning Post, citing unnamed sources, said the laws would ban secession, foreign interference, terrorism and all seditious activities aimed at toppling the central government and any external interference in Hong Kong.

Online posts had already emerged urging people to gather to protest on Thursday night and dozens were seen shouting pro-democracy slogans in a shopping mall as riot police stood nearby.

An anti-extradition bill protester is detained by riot police during skirmishes between the police and protesters outside Mong Kok police station on Sept. 2, 2019 in Hong Kong. National security legislation emanating from Beijing would likely lead to renewed protests. (Tyrone Siu/Reuters)

Opposition democrats said the move would gravely wound Hong Kong's reputation as a financial centre and its high degree of autonomy.

"If this move takes place, 'one country, two systems' will be officially erased," said democratic lawmaker Dennis Kwok.

"This is the end of Hong Kong," added Kwok, flanked by other opposition democrats.

Hong Kong people took to the streets last year to protest a now-withdrawn bill that would have allowed extraditions of criminal suspects to mainland China. The movement broadened to include demands for broader democracy amid perceptions that Beijing was tightening its grip over the city.

"If Beijing passes the law … how [far] will civil society resist repressive laws? How much impact will it unleash on to Hong Kong as an international financial centre?" said Ming Sing, political scientist at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

Washington watching closely

The legislation could be a turning point for Hong Kong, potentially triggering a revision of its special status in Washington and likely to spark more unrest.

"If it happens, we'll address that issue very strongly," U.S. President Donald Trump said from Washington before departing for a visit to a Michigan factory.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on May 6 he was delaying a report assessing whether Hong Kong was sufficiently autonomous to warrant Washington's special economic treatment that has helped it remain a world financial centre.

The delay was to account for any actions at the National People's Congress, he said.

Hong Kong media tycoon Jimmy Lai, centre, and pro-democracy lawmaker Martin Lee, right, are shown Monday arriving to court to face charges relating to joining unlawful protests last year in Hong Kong. Lai and Lee are among 15 pro-democracy figures who were arrested. (Vincent Yu/The Associated Press)

Tension between the two superpowers has heightened in recent weeks, as they exchanged accusations on the handling of the coronavirus pandemic, souring an already worsening relationship over trade.

Pompeo said on Wednesday that pro-democracy lawmakers had been "manhandled" this week while trying to stop what he characterized as procedural irregularity by pro-Beijing legislators, and added: "Leading Hong Kong activists like Martin Lee and Jimmy Lai were hauled into court. Actions like these make it more difficult to assess that Hong Kong remains highly autonomous from mainland China."

A previous attempt by Hong Kong to introduce national security legislation, known as Article 23, in 2003 was met with mass peaceful protests and shelved.

Hong Kong has a constitutional obligation to enact Article 23 "on its own," but similar laws can be introduced by Beijing separately into an annex of the Basic Law, the city's mini-constitution.

Martin Lee, barrister and founder of the Hong Kong Democratic Party, said he was one of at least 14 detained Saturday on charges of organizing and participating in unlawful protests last year.   5:54

That legal mechanism could bypass the city's legislature as the laws could be imposed by promulgation by Hong Kong's pro-Beijing government.

"Some people are destroying Hong Kong's peace and stability. Beijing saw all that has happened," pro-establishment lawmaker Christopher Cheung, who is not part of discussions in Beijing, told Reuters.

"Legislation is necessary and the sooner the better."

National security legislation has been strongly opposed by pro-democracy protesters who argue it could erode the city's freedoms and high degree of autonomy, guaranteed under the "one country, two systems" formula put in place when it returned to Chinese rule.

Protesters denounce what they see as the creeping meddling in Hong Kong by China's Communist Party rulers. Beijing denies the charge.