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Vote in China rings the death knell of democracy in Hong Kong

On Thursday 28 May 2020, China’s National People’s Congress voted 2,878 to 1 in favour of approving the national security law critics have described as a ‘death knell’ and called ‘the end of Hong Kong’. The law will make it a crime to undermine Chinese authority in the territory and drastically broaden Beijing’s power. It could also see China installing its own security agencies in the region for the first time.

Critics fear it could lead to Hong Kongers being prosecuted – even retroactively – for criticising their or the mainland’s leadership, joining protests or exercising their current rights under local laws. Claudia Mo, a pro-democracy lawmaker, told CNN that the decision marks “the beginning of a sad and traumatizing era for Hong Kong.”

“They’ve practically taken away our soul. Our soul we’ve been treasuring all these years, the rule of law, human rights, they’re taking away all the core values we’ve come to know,” Ms Mo said. “Hong Kong as we knew it is finally dead.”

China says the legislation will be aimed at tackling secession, subversion, terrorism and foreign interference in Hong Kong but the plan, unveiled in Beijing last week, triggered the first big protests in the city for months and also prompted widespread condemnation and strained relations with the United States and Britain.

On Wednesday, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that the US would no longer consider the global financial hub as autonomous from China for trade and economic purposes. In a statement, Pompeo denounced the law as a “disastrous decision” and “the latest in a series of actions that fundamentally undermine Hong Kong’s autonomy and freedoms.”

“No reasonable person can assert today that Hong Kong maintains a high degree of autonomy from China, given facts on the ground,” said Pompeo.

Under the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act passed last year in support of Hong Kong’s months-long pro-democracy protests, the US government must annually verify to its Congress that the city remains autonomous from China or it risks losing its special status with the US.

The national security legislation is the latest issue to fuel fears in Hong Kong that Beijing is imposing its authority and eroding the high degree of autonomy the former British colony has enjoyed under a “one country, two systems” formula since it returned to Chinese rule in 1997.

Now approved, the NPC’s standing committee will draft the law – a process that is expected to take about two months. It will then be implemented upon promulgation by the Hong Kong government, bypassing the city’s legislature via a rarely-enacted constitutional backdoor. 

The approval of the law is expected to result in further mass demonstrations, with protest leaders vowing to oppose greater Chinese government influence whatever the cost and clashes already broke out on Wednesday as Hong Kong’s Legislative Council debated a different proposed law, which would make it a crime to disrespect the Chinese national anthem. Hundreds of people were arrested in protests over that and the security law and on Thursday, riot police were deployed. 

“Beijing has been eroding that in recent years,” Wilson Leung, a barrister in the city, told the Guardian. “But now this appears to be the killer blow. It is going to be very dark days ahead for the citizens of this once-great city.”

Last year, IOHR spoke to a Hong Kong protester about the city’s struggle for democracy. 

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