China to set up powerful security agency in Hong Kong

The Chinese government will establish a powerful national security agency in Hong Kong, according to a summary of a controversial new law released by Chinese state media on Saturday.

The body will supervise national security work in Hong Kong and also have jurisdiction over “a very small number of crimes that endanger national security under certain circumstances”, the official Xinhua news agency said, without providing further details.

China’s parliament, which is finalising a draft of the new legislation, had previously said it would enable state security organs to operate in Hong Kong. But confirmation that a powerful new agency would be established will exacerbate concerns about the new law.

“Beijing’s hand is grabbing the administrative and judicial reins of Hong Kong,” said pro-democracy lawmaker Alvin Yeung. The continuing lack of details when it came to specific criminal actions was “extremely worrying”, he said.

Chinese and Hong Kong officials have argued that the vast majority of cases under the new law would be handled by local courts, in accordance with common law principles.

According to Xinhua, giving the agency jurisdiction over certain crimes was necessary to prevent a situation where China might be forced to declare a state of emergency in Hong Kong, as it can do under Article 18 of the Basic Law, the territory’s mini-constitution.

Chinese officials argue that the eruption of large pro-democracy protests last year, which often led to violent clashes with police and widespread disruption, have brought Hong Kong to the brink of such an emergency.

Beijing’s determination to press ahead with the law, which will be finalised after a brief consultation, puts it on a collision course with the US and UK, and could spark an upsurge of protests in the largely autonomous Chinese territory.

The new details were released just one month after Beijing’s National People’s Congress shocked Hong Kong’s 7.4m residents and the international community with the news it intended to draft the legislation.

Last month Donald Trump, US president, threatened to rescind economic and trade privileges Hong Kong enjoys with the US if the national security law was passed, on the grounds that it would fatally undermine the “one country, two systems” arrangement that is supposed to guarantee the former British colony’s wide-ranging autonomy until 2047.

The law will take effect shortly after it is formally passed by the NPC’s Standing Committee, which could happen at its next scheduled meeting in August or at a special session after the consultation period concludes.

Boris Johnson, UK prime minister, has also threatened repercussions, saying he is prepared to offer a pathway to citizenship for as many as 3m Hong Kong residents who either hold or are eligible to apply for British National (Overseas) passports.

President Xi Jinping’s administration, which blames US and British “interference” for the pro-democracy protest movement in Hong Kong, has said it will take unspecified countermeasures against both countries if they follow through on their threats.

“China’s determination to push for a national security law in Hong Kong is unshakeable,” Yang Jiechi, Mr Xi’s top foreign affairs official, told Mike Pompeo, US secretary of state, at a meeting on Wednesday in Hawaii. “China resolutely opposes US interference in Hong Kong affairs.”

The NPC’s announcement is likely to spur protests over the weekend and again on July 1, the 23rd anniversary of China’s resumption of sovereignty over Hong Kong. The territory’s pro-democracy camp has held a large protest march on the anniversary since 2003, when an estimated 500,000 people gathered to oppose national security legislation that was later abandoned.

Hong Kong’s government has not tried to pass a national security law since, which Beijing said left it no choice but to act unilaterally. 

In June last year, mass rallies against a controversial extradition bill that would have allowed Hong Kong residents to be sent to China for trial on certain charges attracted crowds of as many as 2m people.