“It is really the biggest crisis that Hong Kong has faced in its modern history,” said China observer Benedict Rogers.
HONG KONG – Beijing formally enacted security laws for Hong Kong on Tuesday, according to Chinese state media, paving the way for one of the most profound changes in the territory’s government in decades.
China surprised the world in May when it announced that it would depart from Hong Kong’s own legislature and pass national security laws directly from Beijing.
According to the state news agency Xinhua, the law was unanimously approved by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress and sanctioned by President Xi Jinping. It will probably come into effect as of Wednesday, with a maximum sentence of life in prison for some crimes.
The law – passed on the eve of the 23rd anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to Chinese rule – will allow Beijing to establish special police and prosecution units in Hong Kong to punish crimes deemed threatening to China.
The move is widely seen as a blow to the “one country, two systems” policy agreed by Britain and China in 1997 during the handover of the territory, which allowed Hong Kong to adopt a separate political system from the continent.
Beijing and Hong Kong officials have been working hard to ensure that the law will not erode the city’s high degree of autonomy, insisting that it will target only a minority of “troublemakers” who pose a threat to national security.
State media are expected to publish more details of the law – which aims to combat subversion, separatism and collusion with foreign forces – later on Tuesday.
The law comes in response to last year’s sometimes violent pro-democracy protests that swept the city.
Louis Chan, 40, was born and raised in Hong Kong and told NBC News that he was preparing to leave for Australia with his two children after the law was enacted – viewing it as a violation of Hong Kong’s beloved freedoms.
“I feel sad. I was wondering why I am leaving. Do I need to leave? But, for the sake of my children, I have to make that decision,” he said.
Amid fears that the legislation would crush the financial center’s civil rights and freedoms, prominent pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong announced that he was leaving “Demosisto”, the pro-democracy group he formed.
“Hong Kong’s will will not be frozen by national security laws or any law of evil,” Wong said in a written statement when reports of the new law emerged. “I will remain at my home, Hong Kong, until they silence me.”
Hundreds of people marched through the city streets on Sunday to protest the law, but pro-China protesters were also in support of the continent.
Former Chief Executive of Hong Kong C.Y. Leung wrote on Facebook on Tuesday that he would offer a reward of up to HK $ 1 million to those who helped arrest security violators, sharing a hotline number.
Current Chief Executive Carrie Lam said during a speech to the United Nations Human Rights Council on Tuesday that the territory was “traumatized by the escalating violence” and unable to “maintain” its own security.
“The law will not have a retrospective effect,” she told the UN by video. “It will not affect legitimate rights and freedoms.”
The security law provoked global condemnation when proposed in May, during the National People’s Congress of China – a huge annual political gathering. The meeting approved the structure of the law by 2,878 votes to 1, but details were provided only this month by senior party officials.
Turning off international criticism, China has repeatedly warned foreign governments against interference in their internal affairs.
The United States strongly criticized the law and said it would withdraw some of Hong Kong’s preferential trade conditions, saying the territory can no longer be considered sufficiently autonomous from the continent.
On Friday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the United States was taking steps to “punish” China for “eviscerating Hong Kong’s freedoms” by announcing visa restrictions for some Communist Party officials. China retaliated with a similar measure, restricting visas to some US officials.
Pompeo retaliated that the tit-for-tat movement “exposes yet again how Beijing refuses to take responsibility for its own choices,” he said in a statement on Monday. Adding that the US was also considering barring defense exports to Hong Kong.
“China will not be intimidated,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said on Tuesday.
“The United States’ attempt to obstruct China’s advance of Hong Kong’s national security legislation through so-called sanctions will never be successful,” he said. Adding that China will adopt “necessary countermeasures”.
Last week, the US Senate also passed a bill that would impose mandatory sanctions on people or companies that support efforts to restrict Hong Kong’s autonomy.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson offered earlier this month to provide passports and a path to citizenship for up to 3 million Hong Kong residents. Taiwan expressed similar support.
Benedict Rogers lived in Hong Kong during the British delivery in 1997 and co-founded Hong Kong Watch, a British charity and advocacy group that monitors threats to Hong Kong’s freedoms. He said the passage of the law was “moving” and “decimated” Hong Kong’s autonomy.
“It is deeply worrying and it is really the biggest crisis that Hong Kong has faced in its modern history,” he told NBC News by phone.
“And it may well mean the death of Hong Kong as we know it.”