China on Friday introduced the draft of a controversial national security law in Hong Kong in its parliament to tighten Beijing's control over the former British colony, in what could be the biggest blow to the territory's autonomy and personal freedoms since 1997 when it came under Chinese rule.
Hong Kong, an economic powerhouse, is a Special Administrative Region (SAR) of China. It has observed a "one country, two systems" policy since Britain returned sovereignty to China on July 1, 1997, which has allowed it certain freedoms the rest of China does not have.
The draft bill on establishing and improving the legal system and enforcement mechanisms for the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) to safeguard national security was submitted to the National People's Congress (NPC) which began its week-long session here.
The new law would proscribe secessionist and subversive activity as well as foreign interference and terrorism in the city - all developments that had been troubling Beijing for some time, but most pressingly over the past year of increasingly violent anti-government protests, Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post reported.
The law to ban "treason, secession, sedition and subversion" could bypass Hong Kong's lawmakers.
News of China's plans was met with immediate criticism by opposition lawmakers in Hong Kong, human rights groups and the US.
"It is the end of 'one country, two systems'," said Dennis Kwok, a pro-democracy lawmaker, referring to the principle by which Hong Kong has retained limited democracy and civil liberties since coming under Chinese control. "(They are) completely destroying Hong Kong."
China's move is also significant in that China's central government appears to have all but given up hope that Hong Kong's administration will succeed at passing local legislation on such a law, amid a hostile political environment and deeply divided city, the report said.
Pro-democracy activists had said they feared "the end of Hong Kong" if China brought the new security law.
The bill which is set to be approved by the NPC, regarded as the rubber-stamp parliament for its routine approval of proposals by the ruling Communist Party of China (CPC), comes in the backdrop of relentless agitation by the local Hong Kong people demanding political and administrative autonomy agreed by China when it took possession of the former British colony in 1997.
While the seven-month-long agitation last year in which millions took part subsided during the coronavirus crisis from January to April, protestors returned to streets this month, with the pro-autonomy and pro-freedom legislators grappling with the security officials in local legislature protesting against the curbs.
Wang Chen, vice chairman of the Standing Committee of the NPC, said since the return of Hong Kong, China has been firmly implementing the principles of "one country, two systems," "the people of Hong Kong governing Hong Kong," and a high degree of autonomy.
The practice of "one country, two systems" has achieved unprecedented success in Hong Kong, according to an explanatory document delivered by Wang, state-run Xinhua news agency reported.
But the increasingly notable national security risks in the HKSAR have become a prominent problem, the document says, citing activities that have seriously challenged the bottom line of the "one country, two systems" principle, harmed the rule of law, and threatened national sovereignty, security and development interests.
Law-based and forceful measures must be taken to prevent, stop and punish such activities, the document said.
A number of pro-democracy figures in Hong Kong, including Democratic Party leader Wu Chi-wai, said the announcement was the death of "one country, two systems".
Civic Party lawmaker Dennis Kwok said, "if this move takes place, 'one country, two systems' will be officially erased. This is the end of Hong Kong." His colleague Tanya Chan added that this was the "saddest day in Hong Kong history".
Student activist and politician Joshua Wong tweeted that the move was an attempt by Beijing to "silence Hong Kongers' critical voices with force and fear".
What makes the situation so incendiary is that Beijing can simply bypass Hong Kong's elected legislators and impose the changes, a BBC report said.
China can place them into Annex III of the Basic Law, which covers national laws that must then be implemented in Hong Kong - either by legislation, or decree.
Pro-democracy activists fear the law will be used to muzzle protests in defiance of the freedoms enshrined in the Basic Law, as similar laws in China are used to silence opposition to the Communist Party.
On Thursday, State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus warned that "any effort to impose national security legislation that does not reflect the will of the people of Hong Kong" would be met with international condemnation.
Ortagus noted that the State Department was delaying its submission to Congress of the annual Hong Kong Policy Act Report in order "to account for any additional actions that Beijing may be contemplating in the run-up to and during the National People's Congress that would further undermine Hong Kong's high degree of autonomy."
Meanwhile, Hong Kong stocks slumped more than five per cent on Friday after China introduced the draft of a new security law in the territory. The Hang Seng Index dipped 5.56 per cent, or 1,349.99 points, to 22,930.14.
(This story has not been edited by Business Standard staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)