China looks to set up national security agencies in Hong Kong

China’s national security agencies will set up operations directly in Hong Kong under proposed new subversion laws that critics say pose a grave threat to the territory’s political and legal autonomy. 

The planned legal changes, unveiled at the National People’s Congress on Friday, the annual session of China’s rubber stamp parliament, would target subversion, terrorism and foreign influence in Hong Kong.

“When needed, relevant national security organs of the Central People’s Government will set up agencies in [Hong Kong] to fulfil relevant duties to safeguard national security,” said Chinese official Wang Chen in a speech at the NPC, according to Xinhua, China’s state-owned news agency.

News of the proposed changes sent stocks in Hong Kong diving, with the Hang Seng index closing down as much as 5.6 per cent, the bourse’s worst one-day performance in almost five years.

The unilateral move by Beijing to impose national security laws that were originally supposed to have been legislated in Hong Kong is also likely to inflame political tensions in the territory.

Disputes broke out in the Legislative Council on Friday, Hong Kong’s de facto parliament, and pro-democracy activists called for demonstrations over the weekend.

Critics of the proposed changes fear they would enable China’s tough national security organisations, such as the Ministry of State Security, the country’s main domestic and external intelligence service, to operate openly in the city. The ministry, which was modelled on the former Soviet Union’s KGB, has been accused of arbitrary arrests and detentions as well as torture.

Under the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini-constitution that has guaranteed its political freedoms and a high degree of legal autonomy since the city’s handover from the UK to China in 1997, mainland Chinese government departments do not have authority in the territory.

The NPC, however, has the power to alter the Basic Law. Beijing said on Friday that the changes to the territory’s national security law would be inserted into the Basic Law in an annex.

Officials did not reveal much more detail about the proposed new law, other than that Hong Kong’s leader, the chief executive, would be required to report regularly to Beijing on national security in the territory.

State media said it would take a matter of months for the proposed new laws to be introduced.

The proposal has set Beijing on a collision course with the US, which has repeatedly warned against imposing the legislation. 

“It is in the interest of the United States to respond swiftly to Beijing’s repeated attacks on Hong Kongers, their autonomy and their basic rights,” said Republican senator Marco Rubio said on Thursday.

Mr Rubio is one of the authors of the 2019 Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, a law passed last year that aims to hold Beijing accountable for its treatment of Hong Kong.

Beijing has argued that the subversion law is long overdue and was made more urgent by pro-democracy protests that engulfed the territory last year. The demonstrations erupted after Hong Kong lawmakers tried to pass a controversial extradition law that would have allowed criminal suspects to be sent to mainland China for the first time. More than 8,000 protesters have been arrested.

The controversy over a national security law has dogged Hong Kong since the 1997 handover. Article 23 of Hong Kong’s Basic Law stipulated that the local government must pass a law that prohibits subversion, secession and foreign influence in the territory. 

In 2003, Tung Chee-hwa, Hong Kong’s first chief executive, tried to pass a version of the law but was thwarted by mass protests and eventually resigned. 

Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam, top right, at the National People’s Congress in Beijing on Friday

Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam, top right, at the National People’s Congress in Beijing on Friday © AFP via Getty Images

Since then, pro-Beijing lawmakers in the territory have increasingly warned that Hong Kong should introduce a law before it was imposed by Beijing. 

“The central government has been urging Hong Kong to go ahead with a piece of legislation for years now,” said Jasper Tsang, a pro-Beijing heavyweight and former president of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council.

Tom Tugendhat, who chairs the UK’s foreign affairs select committee, urged the British government to defend the 1984 Joint Declaration, which established the “one country, two systems” arrangement that guaranteed Hong Kong a level of autonomy.

“Beijing is killing the One Country, Two Systems model followed by all [Chinese president] Xi’s predecessors. He’s turning his back on the past. We need to recognise our responsibility under the Joint Declaration and stand up for a democracy in China,” he said.

The protest movement has placed some hope on intervention from the US, particularly through the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act. 

Under the act, the US holds an annual assessment of whether Hong Kong retains its autonomy. The US president can sanction individuals considered to have committed gross human rights violations.

The US could also revoke Hong Kong’s special status, under which it maintains favourable trading terms with the territory on the basis that it is considered to be a separate jurisdiction from mainland China. 

Washington’s reaction to the national security laws will partly depend on whether mass protests continue in Hong Kong, say analysts. 

“One of the factors is whether Hong Kongers themselves are prepared to fight,” said political scholar Brian Fong, referring to the possible resumption of the protests.

Some activists in Hong Kong vowed to protest against the new security law, with many also gearing up to mark the one-year anniversary of last year’s demonstrations in June.

“We can’t stop coming out because of fear,” said one 18-year-old university student, who identified herself only as Tung. 

Additional reporting by Laura Hughes in London

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