A controversial national security law imposed by China on Hong Kong has come into force, punishing crimes of secession, sedition and collusion with foreign forces with terms of up to life in prison.
Beijing says the law is necessary to deal with separatism and foreign interference, but critics fear the legislation, which was approved in record time and not made public until after it was passed on Tuesday, will outlaw dissent and destroy the autonomy promised when Hong Kong was returned from the United Kingdom to China in 1997.
Chinese President Xi Jinping signed the contentious law some 40 days after the introduction of the bill by the central government in Beijing.
It took effect from 15:00 GMT, an hour before the 23rd anniversary of the handover of the former British territory to Chinese rule.
The new suite of powers radically restructures the relationship between Beijing and Hong Kong, toppling the legal firewall that has existed between the city’s independent judiciary and the mainland’s party-controlled courts.
It empowers China to set up a national security agency in the city, staffed by officials who are not bound by local laws when carrying out duties.
It outlaws four types of national security crimes: subversion, secession, terrorism and colluding with foreign forces to endanger national security.
The full text of the law gave three scenarios when China might take over a prosecution: complicated foreign interference cases, “very serious” cases and when national security faces “serious and realistic threats”.
“Both the national security agency and Hong Kong can request to pass the case to mainland China and the prosecution will be done by the Supreme People’s Procuratorate and the trial will be in the Supreme Court,” the law stated.
“No matter whether violence has been used, or the threat of violence used, leaders or serious offenders will be sentenced for life imprisonment or a minimum of 10 years in jail,” it said.
“The Hong Kong government has no jurisdiction over the national security agency in Hong Kong and its staff when they are discharging duties provided in this law,” it added.
The text also specified that those who destroy government facilities and utilities would be considered subversive. Damaging public transportation facilities and arson would constitute acts of “terrorism”. Any person taking part in secessionist activities, whether organising or participating, will violate the law regardless of whether violence is used.
The law also said certain national security cases could be held behind closed doors without juries in Hong Kong if they contained state secrets, although the verdict and eventual judgements would be made public.
After the passing of the law, prominent Hong Kong pro-democracy activists Joshua Wong, Agnes Chow and Nathan Law issued statements on Facebook saying they would withdraw from the pro-democracy organisation Demosisto.
Wong said “worrying about life and safety” has become a real issue and nobody will be able to predict the repercussions of the law, whether it is being extradited to China or facing long jail terms.
The legislation marked “the end of the Hong Kong that the world knew before”, he said, adding: “From now on, Hong Kong enters a new era of reign of terror. With sweeping powers and ill-defined law the city will turn into a secret police state.”
Demosisto then announced on Facebook it was disbanding, saying the loss of top members made it difficult to continue.
Al Jazeera’s Katrina Yu, reporting from Beijing, noted the passage of the law had been fast-tracked.
“It’s very symbolic that this law has been passed just a day before the anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover from Britain back to mainland China,” she said. “It seems to be Beijing telling the people that at the end of the day it is China that is in charge in Hong Kong and China’s leaders will do whatever they deem necessary to protect Hong Kong.”
China first announced its plan to impose the legislation on the eve of the National People’s Congress last month, after nearly a year of protests in the territory that began over a now-withdrawn extradition bill with the mainland.
The security bill gave renewed momentum to the protests, which had calmed as the coronavirus pandemic made it more difficult to hold mass gatherings, and triggered condemnation from countries including the UK and the United States.
On Tuesday, more than 100 protesters gathered at a shopping centre in Hong Kong’s Central business district, chanting slogans including “free Hong Kong, revolution now”, with several holding up a flag representing an independent Hong Kong as well as posters condemning the law.
Activists are calling for fresh protests on July 1 even though police have said rallies cannot happen because of the coronavirus. Some 4,000 police are expected to be on standby on Wednesday when an official ceremony also takes place.
Al Jazeera’s Adrian Brown, reporting from Hong Kong, said the mood in the city was sombre.
The passage of the law has “had an immediate and chilling impact. We went out on the streets at lunchtime to speak to ordinary people at lunchtime to try and gauge their opinions and none of them wanted to comment – that’s very unusual here in Hong Kong,” he said.
“People are now going to vote with their feet and leave in droves.”
Authorities in Beijing and Hong Kong have repeatedly said the legislation is aimed at a few “troublemakers” and will not affect rights and freedoms, nor investor interests.
Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam, speaking via video link to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, said the law would fill a “gaping hole” and would not undermine the territory’s autonomy or its independent judiciary.
Lam said Hong Kong had been “traumatised by escalating violence fanned by external forces” and added: “No central government could turn a blind eye to such threats to sovereignty and national security.”
“We hope the law will serve as a deterrent to prevent people from stirring up trouble,” said Tam Yiu-Chung, Hong Kong’s sole representative on the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, which approved the law on Tuesday morning.
“Don’t let Hong Kong be used as a tool to split the country,” he said.
The legislation pushes Beijing further along a collision course with the US, the UK and other Western governments, which have said it erodes the high degree of autonomy the city was granted at its handover.
Washington, already in dispute with Beijingover trade, the South China Sea and the novel coronavirus, began eliminating Hong Kong’s special status under US law on Monday, halting defence exports and restricting technology access.
Meanwhile, in a joint statement, 27 countries including Britain, France, Germany and Japan said China must reconsider the law which “undermines” Hong Kong’s freedoms.
Julian Braithwaite, Britain’s ambassador to the UN in Geneva, read the statement at the world body’s Human Rights Council, on behalf of all the signatories.
The 27 countries have “deep and growing concerns” over the new security law, which has clear implications on the human rights of people in Hong Kong, the statement said.
Imposing the law without the direct participation of Hong Kong’s people, legislature or judiciary “undermines” the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ principle guaranteeing Hong Kong a high degree of autonomy, rights and freedoms, the signatories said.
“We urge the Chinese and Hong Kong governments to reconsider the imposition of this legislation and to engage Hong Kong’s people, institutions and judiciary to prevent further erosion of the rights and freedoms that the people of Hong Kong have enjoyed for many years,” the statement said.
Signatories included Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Switzerland and 15 European Union states including the Netherlands and Sweden.
China has chosen to break their promises to the people of Hong Kong and go against their obligations to the international community.
?? will not turn our backs on the commitments we have made to the people of Hong Kong. pic.twitter.com/ir19ghzq28
— Dominic Raab (@DominicRaab) June 30, 2020
Earlier on Tuesday, Dominic Raab, the British foreign secretary, called the passing of the law a “grave step”, before adding on Twitter: “China has chosen to break their promises to the people of Hong Kong and go against their obligations to the international community. The UK will not turn our backs on the commitments we have made to the people of Hong Kong.”
Japan described the move as “regrettable”, Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen said she was “very disappointed” at the outcome and Charles Michel, president of the European Union Council, said the bloc “deplores” the decision.
And Joshua Rosenzweig, head of Amnesty International China, said Beijing’s “aim is to govern Hong Kong through fear from this point forward”.
China has hit back at the outcry, denouncing “interference” in its internal affairs.