China releases blueprint for Hong Kong national security law

China revealed a blueprint on Saturday night for a controversial new national security law, which critics say threatens political and civil freedoms in Hong Kong and broadens Beijing’s direct control over the semi-autonomous city.

Under the sweeping draft legislation, Beijing would be able to override Hong Kong’s prized independent legal system and mainland officials will establish a national security office in Hong Kong, further eroding the city’s autonomy.

The draft, which is being reviewed by China’s top legislature, allows Hong Kong’s top official to handpick which judges hear national security cases, according to state-run Xinhua news agency, jeopardizing the city’s treasured independent judiciary.

And while Hong Kong courts will preside over national security criminal cases, mainland Chinese security organs will have the power to “exercise jurisdiction” over cases that “jeopardize national security under specific circumstances.”

The characteristics of those circumstances were not defined. Criminal offenses under the draft law include secession, subversion of state power, terrorist activities, and collusion with foreign or external forces to endanger national security, according to Xinhua.

Beijing’s national security office in Hong Kong will guide and supervise local officials’ policing of national security, and will also “collect and analyze national security intelligence,” Xinhua reported on Saturday.

The Hong Kong government will also be required to set up a national security commission, headed by Chief Executive Carrie Lam. Beijing will appoint a national security adviser to sit on the Hong Kong commission.

According to Xinhua, the provisions in the national security law will kick in when local laws of the semi-autonomous region are inconsistent.

If passed, the law will be imposed by Beijing, bypassing Hong Kong’s legislature, via a rarely used constitutional backdoor.

Those standing for election or public office in Hong Kong must swear to uphold the Basic Law, the city’s mini-constitution, and pledge allegiance to the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR).

In response to the new details, Lam said the Hong Kong government “fully supports legislative work for safeguarding national security” and is “undertaking the necessary preparatory work.”

New units will be set up in the Hong Kong Police Force and Department of Justice to “shoulder the major responsibilities in implementing the relevant enforcement work,” she added.

Backlash against the law

The proposed legislation has been widely criticized by opposition lawmakers in Hong Kong, human rights groups and politicians worldwide.

Washington has threatened to revoke Hong Kong’s special trading relationship with the US and potentially even impose sanctions on Chinese and Hong Kong officials, and more than 200 lawmakers from two-dozen countries have signed an open letter condemning the bill.

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson promised to provide a path to British citizenship for potentially millions of Hong Kongers. The proposal would extend rights granted to holders of British National (Overseas), or BNO passports. Currently, some 350,000 people holding BNO passports can travel to the UK visa free for six months.

And Taiwan earned a scolding from Beijing after the self-governed island set up an office to help Hong Kong citizens who have moved to Taiwan, or intend to do so, for “political reasons.”

The second-highest ranking official in Hong Kong has insisted the law will not erode the city’s democratic freedoms. Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung said last month the law will bring stability to Hong Kong, by preventing a repeat of the increasingly violent street confrontations that rocked the city for months in 2019.

And Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, the country’s No. 2 leader, said after parliamentary meetings in Beijing that the law was designed for the “steady implementation of ‘one country, two systems'” — a formula that guarantees Hong Kong its autonomy and freedoms — and for “Hong Kong’s long term prosperity and stability.”

But that has failed to reassure critics. In mainland China, far reaching national security laws have been used to target pro-democracy campaigners, human rights activists, lawyers and journalists.

Last week, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, two Canadians detained in China in December 2018, were formally charged with spying by Chinese prosecutors. Their detention and subsequent charges, described by the Canadian government as “arbitrary,” are viewed by analysts as Beijing’s political revenge against Ottawa for the Canadian authorities’ arrest of a Chinese tech executive at the request of the US government. The latest development further fuels will fuel fears in Hong Kong over the impending national security law.

When a decision to enact the law was approved by China’s rubber-stamp parliament last month, Hong Kong pro-democracy lawmaker Claudia Mo said the decision marks “the beginning of a sad and traumatizing era” for the city.

“They’ve practically taken away our soul. Our soul we’ve been treasuring all these years, the rule of law, human rights, they’re taking away all the core values we’ve come to know,” she said.

“From now on, Hong Kong is nothing but just another mainland Chinese city.”

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