China plans to establish a special bureau in Hong Kong to investigate and prosecute crimes considered threatening to national security, according to details of a controversial new national security law Beijing is imposing on the semi-autonomous territory.
In addition, bodies in all Hong Kong government departments, from finance to immigration, will be directly answerable to the central government in Beijing, the official Xinhua News Agency said on Saturday.
The announcement increases concerns that China’s communist government will continue to tighten its grip on Hong Kong. Beijing has said it is determined to press ahead with the national security legislation — which has been strongly criticised as undermining the Asian financial hub’s legal and political institutions — despite heavy criticism from within Hong Kong and abroad.
The details of the proposed national security law emerged as the body that handles most lawmaking for China's legislature closed its latest meeting. The bill was raised for discussion at the meeting of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress but there was no further word on its fate, Xinhua said.
Tam Yiu-chung, Hong Kong's sole delegate on the Standing Committee, told Hong Kong public broadcaster RTHK that the law was reviewed but no vote had been taken, and that it wasn't clear when it would be further vetted. The Standing Committee meets every two months.
The bill was submitted on Thursday for deliberation, covering four categories of crimes: secession, subversion of state power, local terrorist activities and collaborating with foreign or external foreign forces to endanger national security.
The bill has received heavy criticism, including from the US, which says it will revoke some of the preferential conditions extended toward Hong Kong after its transfer from British to Chinese rule in 1997.
Britain has said it will offer passports and a path to citizenship to as many as 3 million Hong Kong residents. Group of Seven leading economies called on China to reconsider its plans, issuing a joint statement voicing “grave concern” over the legislation that is said would breach Beijing’s international commitments as well as the territory’s constitution.
Beijing has repeatedly denounced the moves as rank interference in its internal affairs.
Li Zhanshu, the ruling Communist Party’s third-ranking official and head of the National People’s Congress, presided over the meeting of the Standing Committee, which handles most legislative tasks in between the annual sessions of the full and largely ceremonial congress.
In its full session last month, the congress ratified a decision to enact such legislation at the national level after Hong Kong’s own Legislative Council was unable to do so because of strong local opposition. Critics say the law could severely limit free speech and opposition political activity.
Legal experts say Beijing’s justifications for the law are debatable.
The Hong Kong Bar Association on Friday called on the city’s government to reveal details of the bill and warned that the law’s enforcement in Hong Kong risked setting up a system of conflicting parallel legal standards dominated by Beijing.
“It raises the question whether individuals will be tried within the criminal justice system in (Hong Kong) by the Hong Kong courts or sent to the mainland for trial and serve any terms of imprisonment in mainland prisons,” the bar association said in a statement.
China acted following widespread and sometimes violent anti-government protests in Hong Kong last year that Beijing saw as a dangerous campaign to split the territory from the rest of the country.
The protests were initially spurred by opposition to proposed legislation that could have seen criminal suspects sent to the mainland for trials in China’s highly opaque legal system, along with possible torture and abuse. The extradition bill was eventually scrapped.
China has sought to assuage concerns by saying the new legislation would only target "acts and activities that severely undermine national security," according to Xinhua.
The legislation is broadly seen as an additional measure further eroding the legal distinctions between Hong Kong and mainland China.
Earlier this month, Hong Kong’s legislature approved a contentious bill making it illegal to insult the Chinese national anthem after pro-democracy lawmakers boycotted the vote out of protest.
Senior opposition figures have also been arrested for taking part in demonstrations, and questions have arisen over whether the national security legislation will be used to disqualify pro-democracy candidates in September’s elections for the Beijing-controlled Legislative Council.