China's ceremonial legislature overwhelmingly endorsed a national security law for Hong Kong on Thursday that has strained relations with the United States and Britain and triggered protests in the semi-autonomous territory.
The National People's Congress backed the bill by a vote of 2,878 to one with six abstentions as it wrapped up an annual session that was held under intensive anti-coronavirus controls.
The move will ultimately change the territory's mini-constitution, or Basic Law, adding a national security law to be decided later by Chinese leaders. The standing committee of the National People's Congress that handles most legislation will work out its details.
Activists in Hong Kong say the law will undermine civil liberties and might be used to suppress political activity.
Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam, who came under fire for her handling of protests last year over an extradition bill that was eventually scrapped, said that fear was misplaced. She said the decision from Beijing was welcome because of the difficulty her government faces in passing national security legislation on its own.
Lam said in a statement that new laws would "sanction an extremely small minority of criminals who threaten national security" and "not affect the legitimate rights and freedoms enjoyed by Hong Kong residents."
The law and the way it is being enacted prompted U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to announce on Wednesday that Washington will no longer treat Hong Kong as autonomous from Beijing. That sets the stage for the possible withdrawal of the preferential trade and financial status the U.S. accords the former British colony.
On Thursday, Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom and the U.S. issued a statement condemning the legislation as a violation of a previous United Nations joint declaration concerning Hong Kong and an action that threatens to undermine the "one country, two systems" arrangement under which the territory retained its own Western-style social, legal and political institutions after being handed over from British to Chinese rule in 1997.
"Direct imposition of national security legislation on Hong Kong by the Beijing authorities, rather than through Hong Kong's own institutions as provided for under Article 23 of the Basic Law, would curtail the Hong Kong people's liberties, and in doing so, dramatically erode the autonomy and the system that made it so prosperous," the statement read.
Japan shares its concerns
The countries said they were concerned the move "will exacerbate the existing deep divisions in Hong Kong society; the law does nothing to build mutual understanding and foster reconciliation within Hong Kong."
Joining the U.S. and other countries in expressing concern, Japan's chief cabinet secretary Yoshihide Suga said it was important for Hong Kong to have a "stable and democratic development."
"We are deeply worried about the National People's Congress this time conducting the vote amid deep concern within the international community and Hong Kong citizens" Suga said.
The measure is designed for "Hong Kong's long-term prosperity and stability," Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said following the closing of the NPC's annual session. Li offered no details about what specific areas the law would cover.
At the United Nations, China blocked a United Nations Security Council meeting to discuss the legislation on Wednesday. Ambassador Zhang Jun said on Twitter that Hong Kong matters are "purely China's internal affairs."
Separate row in Hong Kong chamber
Earlier Thursday, three pro-democracy lawmakers were ejected from Hong Kong's legislative chamber, disrupting the second day of debate on a contentious bill that would criminalize insulting or abusing the Chinese national anthem.
The legislature's president, Andrew Leung, suspended the meeting minutes after it began and ejected Eddie Chu for holding up a sarcastic sign about a pro-Beijing lawmaker that read, "Best Chairperson, Starry Lee."
A second pro-democracy lawmaker was ejected for yelling after the meeting resumed, and then a third after rushing forward with a large plastic bottle in a cloth bag that spilled its brownish contents on the floor in front of the president's raised dais.
The third lawmaker, Ted Hui, later described the contents as a rotten plant, and said he wanted Leung to feel and smell the rotting of Hong Kong's civilization and rule of law, and of the "one country, two systems" framework that democracy activists feel is under attack by China's ruling Communist Party.
The city's pro-democracy opposition sees both the security legislation and the anthem law as assaults on that autonomy, and the U.S. has called on China to back off on the security law.