HONG KONG, May 22 (Reuters) - Beijing is moving to impose new national security legislation on Hong Kong, it announced on Thursday, following last year’s often violent anti-China unrest that plunged the city into its deepest turmoil since it returned to Beijing rule in 1997.
The legislation, which will be deliberated by China’s annual session of parliament which begins on Friday, comes after the city’s failure to implement legislation on its own as stipulated in the city’s mini-constitution under the terms of its handover from British to Chinese rule.
For several years now, Chinese officials have increasingly expressed frustration and anger at what they perceive as a weak national security regime in Hong Kong, the freewheeling financial hub which has a high degree of autonomy.
The large and sometimes violent anti-government protests that erupted last year have sharpened that frustration, with China’s Communist Party leadership determined to thwart what they describe as threats of terrorism, independence, subversion and sedition. China’s most senior official in Hong Kong, Luo Huining, warned in April that the city must urgently introduce national security legislation.
“If the ant-hill eroding the rule of law is not cleared, the dam of national security will be destroyed and the wellbeing of all Hong Kong residents will be damaged,” he said.
The issue sits at the heart of the delicate “one country, two systems” formula under which China agreed to protect Hong Kong’s extensive freedoms, autonomy and its independent legal system.
Those freedoms are protected by the Basic Law, a mini-constitution that guides the relationship between Hong Kong and Beijing.
But Article 23 of the document also states that Hong Kong must “on its own” enact laws against treason, secession, sedition, subversion and the theft of state secrets. It also seeks to outlaw ties between local and foreign political groups.
The Hong Kong government proposed local legislation in 2003 but met vast opposition before it could be passed into law, with more than 500,000 people marching peacefully against it.
Local officials acknowledge their obligations but some, including leader Carrie Lam, have said recently that the time is still not right.
However the Basic Law also gives Beijing the power to annex national laws into the document - which the local government must then legislate for or effectively impose on the city by executive fiat.
Local lawyers and politicians sometimes call this the “nuclear option”, but some scholars have questioned whether this power of promulgation applies to Article 23.
“This is a big, unanswered question,” said University of Hong Kong law school professor Simon Young.
Yes. Britain left behind a raft of old laws covering most of the elements of Article 23, aside from subversion and secession - the act of formally withdrawing from a state.
Most are decades old and lawyers say they would be hard to deploy given more recent protections on freedoms of speech, assembly and association written into the city’s Bill of Rights and the Basic Law itself.
Highly. Given Hong Kong’s protest movements and polarised politics, a fresh push even to create local legislation would be tough.
Many fear that new national security legislation would prove a “dead hand” on the city’s large and pugnacious press and rich artistic traditions, while curbing its broad political debates.
Any step by Beijing to impose its own version via promulgation risks panic and chaos, many observers believe - potentially sparking some people and capital to flee and denting Hong Kong’s international stature as a financial hub.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in late April “any effort to impose draconian national security legislation on Hong Kong would be inconsistent with Beijing’s promises, and would impact American interests there”. (Editing by Nick Macfie)