China passed a contentious national security law on Tuesday that will enable authorities to crack down on subversive and secessionist activity in Hong Kong, a historic move that critics say will severely undermine the city’s autonomy and have a crippling effect on the rule of law and judicial independence.
“It marks the end of Hong Kong that the world knew before,” pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong said. “From now on Hong Kong enters a new era of a reign of terror . . . with arbitrary prosecutions, black jails, secret trials, forced confessions, media clampdowns and political censorship.”
The law unanimously approved by China’s rubber-stamp parliament, will outlaw acts of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces, carrying a maximum penalty of life imprisonment. Beijing will have power over how the law should be interpreted and will set up special state security and prosecution units in Hong Kong for the first time.
Hong Kong’s chief executive, who is handpicked by Beijing, will also be given the power to appoint judges to hear certain national security cases, raising further fears for the city’s judicial independence.
“With sweeping powers and an ill-defined law, the city will turn into a secret police state,” Mr Wong said.
The legislation – passed on the eve of the 23rd anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to Chinese rule – is widely seen by the pro-democracy camp as a body blow to the “one country, two systems” framework that guaranteed Hong Kong “a high degree of autonomy” after the 1997 handover from Britain to China.
The swift enactment of the law, which bypassed Hong Kong’s own legislature, indicates Beijing’s intention to grasp control of the city that was roiled by months of pro-democracy protests last year.
Beijing rejects allegations the law will harm political freedoms in the financial hub and claims it will restore stability and business confidence to the city after a year of turmoil that saw millions take to the streets and more than 9,000 activists arrested in often violent confrontations with police.
Minutes after the law passed on Tuesday, Mr Wong and other core leaders of the pro-democracy group Demosisto resigned from the party, saying their political affiliations caused them to worry about “life and safety”. They said they would continue campaigning for democracy in personal capacities. Demosisto then announced it would be disbanding.
Two fringe pro-independence parties, the Hong Kong National Front and Studentlocalism, also said they were shutting down operations in the city.
Many pro-democracy activists purged posts on their social media accounts and deleted texts, contacts, photographs and video from their computers and phones, fearing the content might incriminate them in any future investigations pertaining to the new law. Some activists have already fled the city.
The move to enact the new legislation has drawn widespread international criticism, with the United States threatening to impose sanctions and rescind trade and travel privileges, and the UK setting up a “route to citizenship” for as many as 3 million of the city’s 7.4 million people who were eligible for British National (Overseas) passports.
Taiwan warned its citizens of “possible risks” when visiting the former British colony in light of the new legislation, and announced it would be setting up a new office on Wednesday to assist Hong Kong residents who wanted to flee the city.