BEIJING – China’s ceremonial parliament will consider a bill that could limit opposition activity in Hong Kong, a spokesperson said Thursday, appearing to confirm speculation that China will sidestep the semi-autonomous territory’s own lawmaking body in enacting legislation to crack down on activity Beijing considers subversive.
Zhang Yesui said the National People’s Congress will deliberate a bill on “establishing and improving the legal system and enforcement mechanisms for the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region to safeguard national security.”
Such a move has long been under consideration but was hastened by months of anti-government protests last year in the former British colony that was handed over to Chinese rule in 1997. Such legislation was last proposed in 2003 under Article 23 of the Basic Law, Hong Kong's mini-constitution, bringing hundreds of thousands of the territory's citizens out in protest.
The proposal was withdrawn by the government but Beijing has increasingly pushed for measures such as punishment for disrespecting the Chinese national flag and anthem and increased pro-China patriotic-themed education in schools. Opposition in Hong Kong's Legislative Council, however, made it unlikely such a bill could pass at the local level.
The new measures are required by the “new situation and demands" and action at the national level is “entirely necessary," Zhang said.
Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post newspaper said a draft resolution would be brought before the National People's Congress on Friday afternoon and voted on at the end of its session on May 28. The congress’ standing committee that handles most actual legislation will then consider the details of the measure, the newspaper said.
A vote at the NPC will add to concerns in Hong Kong's pro-democracy camp that Beijing is chipping away at the territory's rights to assembly and free speech that greatly exceed those permitted by the ruling Communist Party in mainland China.
The decision to circumvent Hong Kong's Legislative Council to enact the security legislation is an “unprecedented and highly controversial intervention," Johnny Patterson, director of the non-governmental organization Hong Kong Watch, said in a statement.
Patterson questioned whether charities and groups such as his own and Amnesty International could be outlawed as subversive under the legislation.
“A broad-brush interpretation of this law would signal the end of Hong Kong as we know it,” Patterson said.
Zhang’s comments at a news conference came on the eve of the opening of the congress’s annual session after a two-month delay because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Thursday saw the opening session of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, an advisory body. That will be followed Friday by the start of the 3,000-member NPC at which Premier Li Keqiang will deliver a keynote speech outlining economic and social goals for the year.
The holding of the “two sessions,” as the annual meetings are known, is a further sign of what the party says is its success in bringing the outbreak under control, although clusters of cases are still popping up in some parts of the country.
Members of the Consultative Conference will “tell the world about how China, as a responsible major country, has taken firm action and contributed to international cooperation in the fight against the COVID-19 epidemic,” Wang Yang, the chairman of the body, said in a report to the opening session.
Wang’s comments were in the prepared text distributed to journalists, although he skipped over them in his delivery, apparently to save time.
Rank-and-file members wore masks in the vast auditorium inside the Great Hall of the People in the heart of Beijing. Other top officials, including Wang, Li and President Xi Jinping, did not.
It remains unclear whether the premier will issue the usual economic growth target for the world’s second-largest economy. Given the economic devastation caused so far this year by the pandemic, any target would likely be considerably lower than last year’s 6.0% to 6.5%.
Tens of millions of Chinese have been thrown out of work and it’s unclear how many jobs will return. Not only have domestic production and demand been hammered, but key export markets such as the United States and Europe have collapsed as the outbreak spreads worldwide.
This year’s meeting of the two bodies is being shortened to one week from the usual two as part of virus-control measures. Media access has been largely reduced and only a limited number of reporters, diplomats and observers were permitted into the meeting hall.
Backed by massive state propaganda support, Xi has received plaudits at home for having contained the virus, even while the U.S. and others question China’s handling of the initial outbreak.
The Chinese public is also largely seen as backing Xi's tough approach to foreign policy challenges, including criticism from the U.S., Australia and others.
Abroad, however, that policy has further bolstered concerns about China’s intentions. The Trump administration issued a 20-page report Wednesday attacking what it called Beijing’s predatory economic policies, military buildup, disinformation campaigns and human rights violations.
That may ultimately add to Xi’s difficulties in reviving economic growth and jobs at a time when global markets are partly shut and skepticism toward China runs high.