(Bloomberg) -- China described Hong Kong’s new security law as a “sword of Damocles” hanging over its most strident critics, after Beijing asserted broad new powers to rein in sources of opposition, from pro-democracy protesters to news agencies to overseas dissidents.
The legislation passed by lawmakers in China and signed by President Xi Jinping allows for potential life sentences for crimes including subversion of state power and collusion with foreign forces. It extends to actions committed by anyone, whether or not they are Hong Kong residents, anywhere in the world and appears to cover even non-violent tactics employed by protesters in a wave of unrest that gripped the former British colony last year.
Hong Kong police wasted no time putting the power to use, announcing the arrest Wednesday of a man in the Causeway Bay shopping area for possessing a Hong Kong independence flag. The man was also seen wearing a “FREE HONG KONG” T-shirt in photographs tweeted by the police.
“The law is a ‘sword of Damocles’ hanging above extremely few criminals who are severely endangering national security,” Zhang Xiaoming, the deputy director of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, told reporters Wednesday in Beijing. “The law will deter foreign forces who try to interfere with Hong Kong affairs. The law is a turning point to put Hong Kong back on its track.”
Zhang’s interpretation -- referencing the story of an ancient Sicilian king who ruled with the threat of a sword suspended over his throne -- was shared by opposition lawmakers and some investors, who warned the law would cast a chilling effect over free speech and political activities related to Hong Kong. The 35-page law, which was only made available as it came into effect late Tuesday, prompted concern that China’s control over the city’s 7.5 million residents had become all-encompassing.
Police Make First Arrest Under Security Law: Hong Kong Update
The measure to punish acts of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces came on the eve of the anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to Chinese rule in 1997. The day is usually marked by mass protests against the government, although the organizer lost a last-minute appeal Tuesday to hold the event after police cited coronavirus risk and the potential for violence.
A few dozen protesters did gather Wednesday in Causeway Bay, chanting slogans such as “Liberate Hong Kong! Revolution of our time!” and “No rioters, only tyranny!” They were confronted by ranks of riot police, who displayed new purple flags warning them they were violating the law. Police used pepper spray to disperse the crowds and detained some present, including opposition lawmaker Andrew Wan.
Prominent activists, including former student leaders Joshua Wong and Agnes Chow, cut ties with political groups Tuesday in an apparent attempt to avoid implicating each other. Pro-democracy lawmakers have expressed concern the law will be used to bar them from seeking office in a legislative election in September.
“It’s worse than I feared,” pro-democracy lawmaker Claudia Mo said early Wednesday. Mo cited provisions suggesting “that there could be secret or in-camera trials, Beijing agents here can enjoy immunity from everything, that if one is found guilty you could be chucked out of public office, that they will ‘strengthen management’ of foreign media in Hong Kong.”
The U.K. accused Beijing of going back on its promise in a 1984 treaty to preserve Hong Kong’s “high degree of autonomy” under an arrangement known as “one country, two systems.” Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he was “deeply concerned” about the move, while the Trump administration vowed additional “strong actions” if Beijing didn’t reverse course.
Hong Kong’s business community, democracy activists and Beijing-appointed leaders alike were relegated to largely being observers as Chinese lawmakers completed the carefully orchestrated rollout of the legislation that will shape the city’s future. In a speech to mark the anniversary, Chief Executive Carrie Lam called the legislation the “most important development” in relations between Hong Kong and China’s central government since the city’s handover.
“It is a historical step to improve the system for Hong Kong to safeguard our country’s sovereignty, territorial integrity and security,” Lam told a reception at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Center, where the the Union Jack was symbolically lowered on July 1, 1997. “It shows that the central government is determined to restore stability in Hong Kong, after a year of escalating violence and riots since last June.”
President Donald Trump warned last month that if Beijing didn’t back down the U.S. would start rolling back Hong Kong’s preferential trade status, while the U.K. and Taiwan have offered new paths to residency for the city’s inhabitants. On Monday, the Trump administration made it harder to export sensitive American technology to Hong Kong, suspending regulations allowing special treatment to the territory over dual-use technologies like carbon fiber used to make both golf clubs and missile components.
The Federal Communications Commission later designated Huawei Technologies Co. and ZTE Corp. as national security threats, a step toward driving the Chinese manufacturers from the U.S. market where small rural carriers rely on their cheap network equipment.
“There is broad, bipartisan concern about the behavior of the government in Beijing,” U.S. Senator Pat Toomey, a Pennsylvania Republican who is sponsoring legislation that could target banks that deal with officials responsible for eroding Hong Kong’s autonomy, told Bloomberg Television. He also said he expected bipartisan interest in measures that would allow let Hong Kong residents seek refuge in the U.S.
The law brings yet more uncertainty as Hong Kong faces its deepest recession on record after last year’s protests and the global pandemic. Unemployment has risen to a 15-year high, while investors are putting money elsewhere. Some expatriates and Hong Kong residents have said they’re considering leaving the city.
The legislation will let Chinese security agents operate in Hong Kong, allow Beijing to prosecute some cases and give Lam the power to pick judges to hear national security matters. In the briefing Wednesday, Chinese officials sought to play down concerns that that the law would be broadly applied while noting that certain actions by activists and opposition leaders last year could be considered crimes.
For instance, Zhang said that those who travel overseas to seek sanctions against China could be prosecuted under the collusion provision. He also said people who spread “malicious rumors,” such as allegations that riot police killed passengers during a controversial sweep of train station in August, could be liable under provisions against “provoking hatred” against the government.
Hong Kong’s freedoms have become increasingly tenuous as Xi grows more confident in China’s ability to withstand foreign pressure and Hong Kong protesters embrace more radical positions such as independence. Beijing’s steady moves to integrate the city boiled over into historic and sometimes violent protests last year, after Lam attempted to pass a bill allowing extraditions to the mainland.
China didn’t publish the full draft law before its passage or allow a public debate, which is required under the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini-constitution. The process also bypassed Hong Kong’s elected Legislative Council.
“Laws that would have fundamental differences to our way of life have been passed thousands of miles away by people we know nothing about, with contents of this legislation which we know nothing about,” pro-democracy lawmaker Dennis Kwok said at an evening briefing. “That’s no way to treat a civilized, educated international city such as Hong Kong, but this is it. The way they’ve done it is the most ruthless, undignified assault on the freedom, human rights and the rule of law of Hong Kong.”
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