China is proposing to introduce a new security law in Hong Kong that could ban sedition, secession and subversion.
The move is likely to provoke strong opposition internationally and in Hong Kong, which was last year rocked by months of pro-democracy protests.
China’s delayed National People’s Congress, its legislature, will debate the issue when it opens on Friday.
Hong Kong’s mini-constitution requires it to bring in such a law but it failed to do so due to widespread opposition.
The so-called Basic Law was introduced when the UK handed back Hong Kong’s sovereignty to China in 1997 and provides certain freedoms not available on the mainland.
The Hong Kong dollar dropped sharply on Thursday in anticipation of the announcement.
One legislator in Hong Kong, Tanya Chan, called it the “saddest day in Hong Kong history”.
The issue has been introduced on the NPC agenda, under the title of Establishing and Improving the Legal System and Enforcement Mechanism of Hong Kong. The opening of the NPC had been delayed because of the coronavirus outbreak.
A spokesman for the NPC said on Thursday that China was planning to improve on the “one country, two systems” policy that Hong Kong has observed.
Zhang Yesui said: “National security is the bedrock underpinning the stability of the country. Safeguarding national security serves the fundamental interest of all Chinese, our Hong Kong compatriots included.”
Beijing has always had the power to enact the national security law into Hong Kong’s Basic Law but has so far refrained from doing so.
But Hong Kong is heading for elections to its own legislature in September and if last year’s success for pro-democracy parties in district elections is repeated, government bills could be blocked.
A mainland source told the South China Morning Post that Beijing had decided Hong Kong would not be able to pass its own security law and the NPC would have to take the responsibility.
Hong Kong’s government had tried to enact the so-called “sedition law” in 2003 but more than 500,000 people took to the streets and it was dropped.
China has the option to impose it into Annex III of the Basic Law, which covers national laws that must be observed in Hong Kong.
The NPC spokesman would only say that more details would come on Friday.
Sources say the law will target terrorist activity in Hong Kong and prohibit acts of sedition, subversion and secession, as well as foreign interference in Hong Kong’s affairs.
Pro-democracy activists fear it will be used to muzzle protests in defiance of the freedoms enshrined in the Basic Law.
Similar laws in China are used to silence opposition to the Communist Party.
There have already been calls inside Hong Kong for demonstrations.
Eric Cheung, a legal professor at the University of Hong Kong, told broadcaster RTHK that the law “completely destroys the Basic Law, and is the equivalent of declaring that ‘one country, two systems’ in no longer valid”.
He was echoed by Civic Party legislator, Tanya Chan, who said: “One country, one system has truly come to Hong Kong.”
She said the sedition law was the most controversial in post-handover Hong Kong and that Beijing had been “extremely disrespectful to Hong Kongers”.
The pro-Beijing DAB party said it “fully supported” the proposals, which were made “in response to Hong Kong’s rapidly worsening political situation in recent years”.
Political unrest had cooled during the coronavirus outbreak but its resurgence was apparent on Monday, when a number of pro-democracy lawmakers were dragged out of the legislative chamber during a row about a Chinese national anthem bill that would criminalise disrespect of it.
Millions took to the streets for seven months last year in rallies that began peacefully but later spiralled into violent clashes.
Those protests were initially about another controversial bill allowing extraditions to the mainland. It was later dropped.