HONG KONG (Reuters) - Beijing unveiled sweeping national security legislation for Hong Kong on Tuesday, symbolically asserting its authority over the city just an hour before the 23rd anniversary of its return to Chinese rule.
The law, which took effect from 1500 GMT on June 30, an hour before the handover anniversary, ushers in the most profound changes to Hong Kong’s way of life since it was handed back to China by Britain in 1997 and exacerbating concerns over freedoms in the financial hub.
Under the legislation, mainland security agencies will be based in Hong Kong officially for the first time, with powers that go beyond the city’s local laws, a move expected to unnerve some diplomats, business leaders and human rights groups.
Crimes of secession and sedition will be punishable by up to life in prison, according to the law, stoking concerns it heralds a more authoritarian era in a city which has been wracked by anti-government protests for the past year.
Damaging transport vehicles and equipment would be considered terrorism, according to the legislation, acts that defined some of the more violent anti-government protests.
The law says violators will not be allowed to stand in local polls, a decision expected to rile democracy activists ahead of Legislative Council elections in September.
Details of the much-anticipated law were unveiled on the eve of the anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover to Chinese rule in 1997, when protesters traditionally take to the streets to air grievances over everything from high property prices to perceived mainland interference in the city.
Authorities banned the rally this year, citing coronavirus, although some activists have pledged to hold a march.
The law has drawn criticism from the United States, Britain and other Western powers. Critics have said Beijing will use it to stamp out dissent and potentially disqualify candidates in elections that are seen as a gauge of support for the democracy movement.
Also likely to unnerve pro-democracy activists and Western governments is a prison term of up to life for the crime of colluding with foreign forces.
Beijing and Hong Kong authorities have repeatedly blamed foreign forces for fomenting sometimes violent anti-government unrest in the city.
China’s central government will exercise jurisdiction over enforcement of the legislation and it will trump Hong Kong law in the event of a conflict.
Beijing had kept full details of the law shrouded in secrecy and even Hong Kong’s Beijing-backed leader, Carrie Lam, said she was not privy to the draft despite her insisting most people had no reason to worry.
China’s government says the law is necessary to tackle secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces following the anti-government protests that plunged the city into its biggest crisis in decades.
Officials in Beijing and Hong Kong have tried to ease concerns about the law, saying it will not erode the city’s high degree of autonomy promised for 50 years under a “one country, two systems” formula that guarantees freedoms not seen on the mainland.
Opposition politicians and critics say the legislation will crush the city’s freedoms and is the most significant move ever by Beijing in a sustained and concerted campaign to assert its authority over Hong Kong and bring it to heel.
Reporting By Meg Shen, James Pomfret, Greg Torode and Marius Zaharia; Writing by Anne Marie Roantree; Editing by Robert Birsel and Giles Elgood