June 29 (UPI) — In a move that is expected to not only further strain relations between China and the West but attract retaliatory measures, Chinese President Xi Jinping signed into law a bill on Tuesday that critics say will threaten the autonomy of Hong Kong and the freedoms of its citizens.
The law went into effect at 11 p.m. after the Asian nation’s top legislative body unanimously passed it earlier in the day.
Andrew Leung, president of Hong Kong’s legislative council, said in a statement that he welcomes its passing as it will “safeguard Hong Kong’s long-term stability and prosperity, and protect … the rights and freedoms long enjoyed by the vast majority of law-abiding citizens.”
“I hope the international community can understand that the legislative work will help ensure the social stability of Hong Kong and further strengthen the city’s status as an international financial center,” he said.
The Hong Kong Police Force said early Wednesday its officers “will resolutely enforce the law.”
“The Hong Kong Police Force is fully responsible for safeguarding the security of Hong Kong as well as our Country,” it said in a statement referring to the Hong Kong Special Administration Region by its initials. “The Hong Kong Police Force will fully perform its duties and strictly enforce the law to restore social order and ensure the effective implementation of the National Security Law.”
Little was known about the law after it was announced late May other than it criminalizes secession, sedition, subversion, terrorism and working with foreign agencies to undermine the national security of the People’s Republic of China in Hong Kong. However, since its passing early Tuesday, it has been promulgated, stipulating that convictions come with maximum penalties of life imprisonment with minor offenses receiving terms of no more than three years.
Within hours of its passing, pro-Hong Kong democracy organization Demosisto announced it had dissolved after its leaders Joshua Wong, Agnes Chow and Nathan Law resigned.
“If my voice will not be heard soon, I hope that the international community will continue to speak up for Hong Kong and step up concrete efforts to defend our last bit of freedom,” Wong said in a tweet.
Demosisto, which had been at the forefront of protests that rocked Hong Kong in the last year, called on the public to continue fighting “in a more flexible manner.”
“We will meet again, Hong Kong,” the organization said. “We will meet in the streets.”
The law effectively expands Beijing’s oversight of Hong Kong, which had been subsumed by pro-democracy protests that erupted last summer over the government’s attempt to pass legislation that would allow some fugitives in the city to be extradited to the mainland for trial before Chinese Communist Party Courts.
However, while the law does not use the word extradition, it lists three situations in which the central government may assume the power to prosecute offenses that are “complex” due to the involvement of a foreign country or “external elements,” a “serious situation” where Hong Kong is unable to enforce or when “a major and imminent threat to national security has occurred.”
It also charges the region’s chief politician with appointing judges to try such cases, threatening the autonomy of Hong Kong’s legal system from the communist mainland courts.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo lambasted China for allowing its “paranoia and fear of its own people’s aspirations” for destroying one of its greatest achievements.
“The United States will not stand idly by while China swallows Hong Kong into its authoritarian maw,” he said in a strongly worded statement on Tuesday after the bill was passed. “The United States will continue to stand with the freedom-loving people of Hong Kong and respond to Beijing’s attacks on freedoms of speech, the press and assembly as well as the rule of law, all of which have, until now, allowed the territory to flourish.”
“Today marks a sad day for Hong Kong,” he said.
Amnesty International condemned the law’s passing as “the greatest threat” to human rights in the region in recent history.
“From now on, China will have the power to impose its own laws on any criminal suspect it chooses,” Joshua Rosenzweig, head of Amnesty International’s China team, said in a statement. “The speed and secrecy with which China has pushed through this legislation intensifies the fear that Beijing has calculatingly created a weapon of repression to be used against government critics, including people who are merely expressing their view or protesting peacefully.”
The law was passed on the last day of the three-day congress and went into effect an hour before the 23rd anniversary of Hong Kong returning to Chinese rule from British authority.
The region was returned in 1997 under the promise that it would maintain its autonomy from mainland China for 50 years established in the U.N.-filed Sino British Joint Declaration.
It has since functioned under the so-called One Country, Two Systems structure, but many fear the new national security law will all but scrap that governmental framework. Pompeo described the law after it was announced as its “death knell.”
A few hours before China’s congress passed the law Tuesday, the United States pre-emptively ended U.S. exports of defense equipment to Hong Kong and restricted its access to high-tech products as it begins to end its special trade status with the region.
“The Chinese Communist Party’s decision to eviscerate Hong Kong’s freedoms has forced the Trump administration to re-evaluate its policies toward the territory,” Pompeo said in a statement.
“The United States is forced to take this action to protect U.S. national security,” he said. “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 CCP by any means necessary.”
Pompeo added they are examining other policies and will take “additional measures to reflect the reality on the ground in Hong Kong.”
Late last week, Pompeo also imposed visa restrictions on CCP officials the United States blames for undermining Hong Kong’s autonomy. On Monday, Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said China would retaliate with visa restrictions on U.S. citizens who commit “egregious conducts on Hong Kong-related issues.”
Beijing has repeatedly condemned foreign nations, but specifically the United States, for interfering in what it calls China’s internal business.
The law has attracted widespread international condemnation, with Britain vowing to overhaul its country’s visa system creating a possible path to citizenship for some 3 million Hong Kong residents.
Taiwan on Tuesday issued a statement condemning the law and stating from Wednesday the Taiwan-Hong Kong Service Exchange Office will officially launch to offer support to Hong Kongers who may seek to flee the city.
The law was tabled following months of pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong that not only grabbed international attention but threatened the region’s stability.
Wong described the law as the end of the region as it is known and the beginning of a “reign of terror.”
“With sweeping powers and ill-defined law, the city will turn into a secret police state,” he said via Twitter. “Hong Kong protesters now face high possibilities of being extradited to China’s courts for trials and life sentences.”
Chow tweeted that it was a difficult decision to leave the group, but it was unavoidable.
“Even in despair we must always think of each other and live stronger,” she said. “If you are alive, there is hope.”