Beijing’s push to impose legislation is seen as fresh rallying point for an anti-government movement that had lost focus
Pro-democracy protesters wearing protective masks sing songs and make gestures during a demonstration at a shopping mall in Hong Kong
Hong Kongers entered fight or flight mode on Friday, reacting with shock and anger to the Chinese parliament’s push to impose national security laws in the territory. While some vowed to fight against a move they fear will end the international business hub’s autonomy, others planned to flee.
China announced on Thursday night that it would “establish and improve a legal framework and mechanism for safeguarding national security” in Hong Kong by legislating in the National People’s Congress, in effect bypassing the territory’s own legislature.
Many in Hong Kong said the announcement was a wake-up call that provided a fresh rallying point for a year-old anti-government movement that has lost its focus and dwindled amid the coronavirus pandemic and widespread despondency over the government’s intensifying clampdown.
Some said the law, which is almost certain to pass at China’s rubber-stamp National People’s Congress in coming days, had rekindled their fighting spirit.
“It’s time for the people to wake up. I am glad to see people around me starting to realise that the day has come,” a professional in his 30s who took part in last year’s protests told the Guardian.
“Come what may Hong Kongers won’t give up. This will only radicalise many of the rational type,” one commented in a chat group.
“While feeling there was nothing we could do but to watch Hong Kong die, this national security law came along and our fighting spirit has been rekindled,” said a post on LIHKG.com, a site popular with protesters in the anti-government movement.
China had warned in a 2014 policy white paper that it had “comprehensive jurisdiction” or “comprehensive power to rule” over Hong Kong. More recently, in the communique of a key Communist party meeting in November 2019, the Fourth Plenum, Beijing told the city to “perfect” its legal system to safeguard national security.
Lau Siu-kai, a vice-president of the central government’s top thinktank on Hong Kong, told a radio programme on Friday that the Chinese government had “no faith at all” in Hong Kong’s ability to legislate a security law to deal with the political crisis and “the sense of urgency has prompted China to turn around the situation”.
The millions-strong, increasingly violent pro-democracy protests of 2019 were sparked by a controversial extradition bill that could have seen individuals sent to China for trial, and shocked Beijing. Seeing Hong Kong’s upheavals as a potential national security threat and insisting that unrest was stirred by “foreign hostile forces” aiming to destabilise China, Beijing has repeatedly made it clear it wants new security legislation passed urgently.
Martin Lee, the founder of the Democratic party and a senior barrister who helped draft the Basic Law, was outraged. “How can the NPC legislate on our behalf? They are totally disregarding the Basic Law and ramming this through.”
The Basic Law is Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, and is meant to safeguard its autonomy after the return to Chinese rule. Pro-democracy lawmakers say the move bypasses Hong Kong’s legislative process and spells the end of the “one country, two systems” policy that China promised in the Sino-British Joint Declaration in 1984.
The former legislator and veteran pro-democracy activist Lee Cheuk-yan said the draft allowed Beijing to have its own national security bureau in Hong Kong.
“It’s a complete disruption of the Hong Kong system of course when they impose a national security organisation in Hong Kong, set up by the Chinese Communist party in Hong Kong,” he said.
“This is the official start of ‘one country, one system’,” said Tanya Chan, a pro-democracy lawmaker. The Democracy party chairman, Wu Chi-wai, said that when China could define what constituted a crime, Hong Kong would be relegated to the role of law enforcer.
Some ordinary Hong Kongers say they will urgently look into emigration. “We’re sure to die. I will find a way to leave, but the most important thing is to send my kids away quick!” said a parent in a chat group.
On Friday, there was chaos for the third consecutive week in a key establishment-controlled committee of Hong Kong’s legislature, known as LegCo. Pro-democracy legislators crowded the dais, holding placards in protest against Beijing’s declaration.
For the third Friday in a row, legislators were physically removed from the room by security guards before the meeting was suspended.