Beijing passes sweeping national security law for Hong Kong

China's parliament passed national security legislation for Hong Kong on Tuesday, setting the stage for the most radical changes to the former British colony's way of life since it returned to Chinese rule almost exactly 23 years ago.

Law seen as most significant erosion to date of Hong Kong's British-style rule of law and autonomy

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam attends a news conference ahead of national security legislation Tuesday. The law has met with strong opposition within Hong Kong and condemnation from former colonial ruler Britain, the U.S., the European Union and others. (Tyrone Siu/Reuters)

China has approved a contentious law that would allow authorities to crack down on subversive and secessionist activity in Hong Kong, sparking fears that it would be used to curb opposition voices in the semi-autonomous territory.

Tam Yiu-Chung, Hong Kong's sole representative to the standing committee of the National People's Congress, confirmed in an interview with reporters Tuesday that the law had been passed. He said punishments would not include the death penalty, but did not elaborate on further details such as whether the law could be applied retroactively.

"We hope the law will serve as a deterrent to prevent people from stirring up trouble," Tam said in the interview. "Don't let Hong Kong be used as a tool to split the country."

The South China Morning Post newspaper and public broadcaster RTHK, both citing unnamed sources, said the standing committee had approved the law unanimously Tuesday.

Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam had declined to comment earlier in the day, while the standing committee was still meeting.

She did say that once the law is passed, "the Hong Kong government will announce it and promulgate it for implementation here, and then I and my senior officials will do our best to respond to everyone's questions, especially regarding the enforcement of this national law."

WATCH | Details of China's new national security law still not clear:

Details of China's new national security law still not clear

3 years ago
Duration 2:22
Featured VideoHong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam promises safeguards, but law strikes fear in prominent pro-democracy activists.

The legislation is aimed at curbing subversive, secessionist and terrorist activities, as well as foreign intervention in the city's affairs. It follows months of anti-government protests that at times descended into violence in Hong Kong last year.

Prominent Hong Kong pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong, as well as Agnes Chow and Nathan Law, issued statements on Facebook indicating that they would withdraw from pro-democracy organization Demosisto.

Wong said "worrying about life and safety" has become a real issue and that nobody will be able to predict the repercussions of the law, whether it is being extradited to China or facing jail terms of 10 years or more.

Over a hundred protesters gathered at a luxury mall in Hong Kong's central business district, chanting slogans including "Free Hong Kong, Revolution Now," with several holding up a "Hong Kong Independence" flag, as well as posters condemning the national security law.

Police later cordoned off different areas of the mall, including the atrium, detaining and searching several protesters.

Law sparks international condemnation 

The law has met with strong opposition within Hong Kong and condemnation from former colonial ruler Britain, the U.S., the European Union and others.

The United Kingdom urgently needs to see the legislation to determine whether it has breached the joint declaration, and then will set out its next steps, a spokesperson for Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Tuesday.

"Despite the urging of the international community, Beijing has chosen not to step back from imposing this legislation and has ignored its international obligations regarding Hong Kong," the spokesperson told reporters.

"We urgently need to see the full legislation and we will use that to determine whether there has been a breach of the joint declaration, and we will then be able to set out the next steps which we are taking in response."

The last British colonial governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten, said: "This decision, which rides roughshod over Hong Kong's elected legislature, marks the end of 'one-country, two-systems.' ... It will throttle the city's rule of law, presenting a major confrontation between what passes for law in China and the common law system in Hong Kong, which has allowed the city to function as one of the most important financial hubs in Asia."

Chinese President Xi Jinping casts his vote in favour of a new security law for Hong Kong at the closing session of the National People's Congress in Beijing on May 28. (Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters)

In Tokyo, top government officials called the legislation "regrettable," saying it undermined credibility in the "one country, two systems" formula adopted at Hong Kong's 1997 handover from Britain to China to preserve its wide-ranging freedoms.

"We will continue to work with the countries involved to deal with this issue appropriately," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a news conference.

In Taipei, Taiwan's cabinet said in a statement the new law would "severely impact" freedom, democracy and human rights in the Asian financial hub and Taiwan would continue to offer help to its people.

Human rights groups have warned the law could target opposition politicians seen as insufficiently loyal to Beijing for arrest or disqualification from running in September elections for the Legislative Council.

Ahead of the announcement, the Trump administration said Monday it will bar defence exports to Hong Kong and will soon require licences for the sale of items to Hong Kong that have both civilian and military uses.

U.S. moves to impose sanctions

The administration has warned for weeks that if the law was passed, it would take action to end special U.S. trade and commercial preferences Hong Kong had enjoyed since reverting to Chinese rule in 1997.

"The United States is forced to take this action to protect U.S. national security," Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement. "We can no longer distinguish between the export of controlled items to Hong Kong or to mainland China. We cannot risk these items falling into the hands of the People's Liberation Army, whose primary purpose is to uphold the dictatorship of the (ruling Communist Party) by any means necessary."

The U.S. Senate on Thursday unanimously approved a bill to impose sanctions on businesses and individuals — including the police — that undermine Hong Kong's autonomy or restrict freedoms promised to the city's residents.

Taxis drive past a government-sponsored advertisement promoting the new national security law in Hong Kong on Monday. (Tyrone Siu/Reuters)

Britain says it could offer residency and possible citizenship to around three million of Hong Kong's 7.5 million people.

China has denounced all such moves as gross interference in its internal affairs, and foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian on Monday said Beijing has decided to retaliate with visa restrictions on "U.S. personnel who perform badly on Hong Kong-related issues."

"The U.S. side's attempt to obstruct China from promoting Hong Kong's national security legislation through the so-called sanctions will never succeed," Zhao told reporters at a daily briefing.

China decided to use the National People's Congress to enact the legislation after opposition within Hong Kong's Legislative Council and within society as a whole made it impossible to pass at the local level.

The law is seen as the most significant erosion to date of Hong Kong's British-style rule of law and high degree of autonomy that China promised Hong Kong would enjoy at least through 2047 under the "one country, two systems" framework.

Passage of the legislation will also allow the central government in Beijing to also set up a national security office in Hong Kong to collect and analyze intelligence and deal with criminal cases related to national security.

With files from Reuters