China released a sweeping blueprint on Saturday to tighten its control over Hong Kong, revealing plans to establish a security agency in the territory to help Beijing extinguish challenges to its power after months of unrest.
The planned national security law for Hong Kong also gives the territory’s chief official, who must answer to Beijing, the power to appoint which judges will hear such cases, eroding the autonomy of the city’s independent judiciary.
The announcement drew immediate protests from opposition leaders who warned that it would imperil the rule of law in Hong Kong, a global financial center with greater freedoms than in mainland China.
The proposed law is a pillar of President Xi Jinping’s push to subdue political strife in Hong Kong, the sole part of China that has loudly defied his drive to entrench authoritarian control. Opposition from the United States, Britain and other Western countries appears unlikely to derail that effort.
The details released by the official Xinhua News Agency on Saturday suggested that the law would greatly magnify the Chinese government’s ability to extinguish political opposition in Hong Kong, which sustained monthslong street protests there last year that often flared into clashes with the police. The law would also allow Beijing to override the city’s local laws.
“This is a dramatic change in the administration of justice in Hong Kong, and it gives central authorities control over Hong Kong that was never anticipated” when Britain returned the territory to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, said Jerome Cohen, a New York University law professor and Council on Foreign Relations senior fellow.
Defying some expectations in Hong Kong, Chinese lawmakers — meeting as the National People’s Congress Standing Committee — did not vote to approve the law on Saturday. Even so, Chinese news media and law experts have said that the government is eager to bring the law into force quickly.
Hong Kong’s opposition politicians said the law would seriously erode the city’s cherished judicial independence and rights to protest and free speech. Chinese security forces already operate secretively in Hong Kong, but the new law would expand and formalize their presence.
“This will hollow out Hong Kong, as far as I could see. This new law can simply mean anything Beijing wants it to mean,” said Claudia Mo, a pro-democracy lawmaker in the Hong Kong legislature. Beijing “used to be quite insistent about judicial independence in Hong Kong,” she said. “Now they are taking off even that facade.”
Tam Yiu-chung, a Hong Kong member of the Chinese legislature’s top committee, told reporters that the authorities in Beijing would only directly intervene in “exceptional” circumstances, such as if unrest turned into war or otherwise went “completely out of control.”
In the wake of monthslong protests in Hong Kong last year over a proposed extradition bill, Chinese Communist Party leaders in October demanded steps to “safeguard national security” in the territory, which retained its own legal system after its return to Chinese sovereignty.
Last month, the full, annual session of the National People’s Congress, China’s party-controlled legislature, nearly unanimously passed a resolution that authorized the Congress’s Standing Committee to impose the security legislation on Hong Kong.
The Xinhua statement said that basic civil liberties like freedom of speech and freedom of assembly will be protected. Critics have scoffed.
“The terms that are being identified as crimes are vague terms,” Michael C. Davis, a former law professor at the University of Hong Kong who is a research scholar at Columbia University, said in a telephone interview. “There’s a legal morass here that means, essentially, the chances that a court can push back are slim.”
The explanation of the national security law for Hong Kong included other key points:
The legislation will order the Hong Kong government to “strengthen oversight and management” of schools and associations in national security matters, suggesting the law could be used to try to stifle campus unrest.
The law will require Hong Kong to establish its own national security commission, in parallel to the central government’s security apparatus, and Beijing will assign at least one adviser.
China will establish its own national security arm in Hong Kong, separate from the territory’s own security commission, to “collect and analyze” intelligence and handle certain cases.
The national security law must always prevail if it comes into conflict with local Hong Kong laws.
The official explanation says that the Chinese national security office stationed in Hong Kong will have jurisdiction in “a tiny number” of cases. But it does not detail what cases. Nor does it say whether crime suspects could face extradition to mainland China.
Tian Feilong, an associate professor of law at Beihang University in Beijing who studies Hong Kong, said that extradition to China would probably be unnecessary, given the options that would be available in the territory.
“The Hong Kong local legal organs will have jurisdiction over more than 99 percent of cases,” Mr. Tian said in a telephone interview. Security agents sent by Beijing would step in, he said, when the local police force is unable to collect the necessary intelligence and handle more difficult cases.
Lau Siu-kai, vice chairman of the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macau Studies, a body that advises Beijing, said that the new law showed respect for Hong Kong’s common-law tradition and the independence of its judiciary.
“Beijing is willing to entrust Hong Kong with the authority and powers to deal with national security,” Mr. Lau said, while adding that, “Of course, Beijing will reserve some powers.”
There is virtually no doubt that the Chinese lawmakers — handpicked by the party — will ultimately approve the legislation. Chinese rules say that draft laws should be discussed at three, perhaps two, lawmakers’ sessions before a vote. This was only the first time the lawmakers had discussed the proposed security law.
Mr. Lau said that the legislation would be completed and put into law no later than the end of July. The Xinhua statement did not specify a schedule.
The official statement released Saturday said the proposed law would define crimes of separatism, subversion, terrorism and “colluding with foreign powers,” but did not provide details. Mr. Tam, the lawmaker from Hong Kong, told reporters that offenders could face up to 10 years in prison.
The provision on collusion — added since the outlines of the law were released in late May — could be used to arrest and convict Hong Kong residents for working with foreign governments and groups, said Mr. Davis, the scholar at Columbia University.
“Collusion with foreigners can then be obviously targeting the locals that are going to Washington and London” to seek support for their causes, Mr. Davis said by telephone.
Legal experts had been calling for weeks for the Chinese government to release a draft text of the law for them to analyze, so that they could offer suggestions on how to reconcile it with Hong Kong’s existing laws. But Beijing officials have been leery of releasing any draft, which would allow pro-democracy opponents of the legislation to assail particular details and demand revisions.
Many experts believe China will bring the national security legislation into force before September, when Hong Kong holds elections for its Legislative Council.
Existing rules ensure that the council is dominated by lawmakers loyal to Beijing, but a minority of pro-democracy lawmakers has kept a foothold in it. Politicians in Hong Kong from both pro- and anti-government camps have said that the security law might be used to disqualify some opposition candidates from running in the elections.
On Friday, the United States secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, signaled that the Trump administration would use the September elections to judge whether and by how much to reduce Hong Kong’s special access to American markets. He and other administration officials have said that the planned security legislation shows that China no longer respects Hong Kong’s autonomy.
The Chinese government and officials in Hong Kong have asserted that the national security law enjoys broad support in the city, a position that pro-democracy politicians and protesters have derided.
On Saturday, 30 unions and a student group held what they described as a referendum to gauge their members’ support for a strike in opposition to the law. The unions represented accountants, retail employees, civil servants and bartenders, among other workers.
Organizers set up polling stations across Hong Kong in what was partly an attempt to muster a show of numerical force. The huge street marches last year that demonstrated the breadth of antigovernment sentiment have since dwindled, due in part to the Covid-19 pandemic and increased police pressure.
Alex Tsui, the head of a union of hotel workers, said the vote was meant to challenge the government’s claim that the national security legislation was widely popular.
“It’s not, but how can we prove it? By voting,” he said.
Vivian Wang contributed reporting. Amber Wang contributed research.