China’s top legislative body approved a landmark national security law for Hong Kong, a sweeping attempt to quell dissent that drew fresh US retaliation and could endanger the city’s appeal as a financial hub.
The National People’s Congress Standing Committee voted unanimously to approve the law on the former British colony as a three-day meeting began to wrap up on Tuesday in Beijing. Hong Kong’s sole representative to the body, Tam Yiu-chung, confirmed the vote in a news briefing, saying more procedural steps were needed before the full statute could be released.
Hong Kong’s business community, democracy activists and Beijing-appointed leaders alike were largely observers as Chinese lawmakers completed the carefully orchestrated rollout of legislation that will shape the city’s future. Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam said earlier on Tuesday that she couldn’t confirm whether the law had been approved, although she acknowledged residents’ concerns about its impact.
“The National People’s Congress is still in a meeting and on the agenda today there’s the relevant national security law for Hong Kong,” Lam said. “At this moment it is inappropriate for me to respond to any questions or give any explanations.”
The measure to punish acts of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces comes on the eve of the anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to Chinese rule in 1997. The organiser of an annual July 1 march that drew more than half a million people last year is making a last-minute appeal to hold the event after being denied permission by police, who cited coronavirus risk and the potential for violence. Some in the pro-democracy camp vowed to march regardless of the decision, despite the risk of arrest. Prominent activists, including former student leaders Joshua Wong and Agnes Chow, cut ties with political groups in an apparent bid to avoid implicating each other. Tam, the Chinese lawmaker, said the legislation wouldn’t include the death penalty, as some had feared.
The new law put limits on civil liberties and Hong Kong’s independent judicial system, which has helped attract hundreds of international companies to Hong Kong. President Donald Trump warned last month the US would start rolling back Hong Kong’s preferential trade status, while the UK and Taiwan have offered new paths to residency for the city’s 7.5 million inhabitants.
The Trump administration made it harder to export sensitive American technology to Hong Kong, suspending regulations allowing special treatment to the territory over dual-use technologies like carbon fiber used to make both golf clubs and missile components.
Lam on Tuesday called the impact of the move “minimal” and rejected the US accusation that such sensitive items could make it to the mainland. “Sanctions will not scare us,” she said. “We are fully prepared and I believe China will also take countermeasures when needed.”
Hong Kong’s markets appeared largely unfazed by the developments, although gains were more modest than elsewhere in Asia. The benchmark Hang Seng Index rose 0.9% in morning trading.
The law brings yet more uncertainty as Hong Kong faces its deepest recession on record after last year’s protests and the global pandemic. Unemployment has risen to a 15-year high, while investors are putting money elsewhere. Some expatriates and Hong Kong residents have said they’re considering leaving the city.