China passed new national security legislation Tuesday, further extending its reach into Hong Kong and giving Beijing greater power to crack down on a wide range of expression, including protesters and Democratic activists in the former British colony. The measure was sped through a secretive legislative process, unanimously voted for, and signed off on by Chinese President Xi Jinping, but very little is known about the exact contents of the law that is expected to widely suppress civil liberties, bringing the territory more in line with the Communist Party’s control of daily life on the mainland. Despite the lack of clarity over what exactly the new law will forbid, Hong Kong’s Beijing-friendly leader, Carrie Lam, said it would go into effect at midnight Tuesday, the same day of its passage. That means the so-called national security law will be operational in time for the July 1 anniversary of the British handover of Hong Kong back to China in 1997, a day that is a lightning rod for pro-democracy protests.
The law is notionally framed as an anti-terrorism bill, aimed at preventing and punishing anti-Beijing activities and speech and branding those groups as collaborators with foreign governments. Since its return to China, Hong Kong has enjoyed a parallel existence to the mainland, engaging in local democratic elections and maintaining wide swath of civil liberties, including freedom of speech. Beijing, however, has been slowly reeling in these protections for the city-state, which has responded with sweeping protests over the past two years that, before the spread of the coronavirus, had already brought the territory to a standstill. “According to a summary of draft provisions released this month, the law allows the central government to supervise the policing of subversive activities in Hong Kong, and in some cases, intervene directly,” the Wall Street Journal reports. “The standing committee of China’s National People’s Congress would also reserve the right to interpret the law, meaning Beijing has the final say over how it is implemented, rather than the city’s courts.”
The specter of the legislative change has already had a significant—and desired—chilling effect within the territory. “Twitter users … deleted their accounts en masse. Political parties disbanded, including the one founded by democracy activist Joshua Wong. Restaurants and cafes removed posters showing their support for the movement,” the Washington Post reports. “Though details remained vague, the legislation will allow Chinese secret police to operate in Hong Kong and target those perceived to hold secessionist views.”
Democratic activists see the new law, which will ultimately be interpreted by Beijing, as just the latest step in its dissolution of the terms of the agreement of Hong Kong’s handover. “A new office in Hong Kong would deal with national security cases, but would also have other powers such as overseeing education about national security in Hong Kong schools,” the BBC reports. “In addition, the city will have to establish its own national security commission to enforce the laws, with a Beijing-appointed adviser.”