China has passed a controversial national security law for Hong Kong despite global opposition to it.
The new legislation sets the stage for the most radical changes to the former British colony’s way of life since it was returned to China almost 23 years ago.
It was passed unanimously by the Chinese parliament’s top decision-making body, Hong Kong media reported on Tuesday.
The legislation is said to be aimed at limiting subversive, secessionist and terrorist activities, as well as foreign intervention in Hong Kong’s affairs.
Critics fear it will be used to target protesters and opposition politicians seen as disloyal to Beijing with harsh prison sentences.
It is seen as a response to often violent anti-government protests that at times descended into violence in the city last year.
It is also thought that the law would give China’s security services powers to operate in Hong Kong.
Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam said it was not appropriate for her to comment on the law while the Standing Committee meeting was still in progress.
The heaviest penalty that can be imposed in the new security law is life imprisonment, according to Hu Xijin, the editor in chief of the Global Times newspaper, citing people who have seen the draft of the legislation.
The repercussions from passing the legislation have already begun with well-known Hong Kong activist Joshua Wong saying he is stepping down as leader of his democracy group Demosisto.
Mr Wong has rallied support for Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement overseas, in particular in the US, drawing the wrath of Beijing, which says he is a “black hand” of foreign forces.
Announcing his decision to step down, Mr Wong said he would be a “prime target” of Beijing’s new national security law.
China’s passing of the law is expected to further strain Beijing’s relations with the UK, the US and other Western governments, which have said it erodes the high degree of autonomy Hong Kong was granted at its handover on 1 July 1997.
The UK urged China not to adopt the law and promised to make it easier for the millions of people in Hong Kong who hold or are eligible for a British National Overseas Passport to become UK citizens.
The US Senate passed a bill that would sanction Chinese officials who undermine Hong Kong’s autonomy and the Secretary of State Mike Pompeo imposed visa restrictions on unnamed current and former party officials.
On Monday, the US began eliminating Hong Kong’s special status under US law, halting defence exports and restricting the territory’s access to high technology products.
Commenting on Washington’s actions, Ms Lam said: “No sort of sanctioning will ever scare us.”
A draft of the law has yet to be published.
Japan’s chief cabinet secretary Yoshihide Suga said on Tuesday that if China had passed the security law for Hong Kong, it was “extremely regrettable”.
And Taiwan’s government warned of risks for its residents visiting Hong Kong due to the new legislation, saying it would “severely impact” freedom, democracy and human rights in the city.
In June, the European Parliament passed a resolution saying the European Union should take China to the International Court of Justice in The Hague if Beijing imposed the law.
Beijing plans to set up a national security office in Hong Kong to “supervise, guide and support” the city government, and could also exercise jurisdiction on certain cases.
China’s official state agency Xinhua will publish details of the law on Tuesday afternoon and Hong Kong officials will gather at Beijing’s top representative office for a meeting on the legislation, according to the South China Morning Post.
Beijing and Hong Kong have repeatedly said the law is aimed at a few “troublemakers” and will not affect rights and freedoms, nor investor interests.
It comes as police have banned this year’s 1 July rally on the anniversary of the 1997 handover because of coronavirus restrictions.