China is taking matters into its own hands after last year's tumultuous anti-government protests in Hong Kong that often descended into tear gas-filled clashes.
In a surprise move, the central government announced last week that it would develop laws to outlaw secession, subversion, terrorism and foreign interference in Hong Kong. The National People’s Congress is expected to ratify the bill Thursday, and legislation could be finalized this summer.
China's decision raises questions about the future of the semi-autonomous territory. Will China station its feared state security officers in the city? Does it signal an erosion or the end of the “one-country, two-systems” framework that gives Hong Kong a high degree of local autonomy?
The devil is in the details. And they haven't come out yet.
“There are still a lot of important questions we have, which have not been answered,” said Joseph Cheng, a political scientist and veteran of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement.
The proposal the Congress is set to approve is really a guideline for future steps. It tasks the legislature's Standing Committee, a smaller body with decision-making authority, with developing specific laws at future meetings.
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Two items in the seven-article draft are getting particular attention. One is the possible deployment of state security. The other is the bypassing of Hong Kong's legislature by crafting and approving the laws in Beijing.
The Hong Kong government is required to enact national security legislation under Article 23 of the Basic Law, its constitution, but has been unable or unwilling to do so because of opposition. An attempt in 2003 was abandoned in the face of huge protests.
China dropped its bombshell the day before the opening of the annual National People's Congress last week. In the wake of last year's protests, the most violent since China took back the former British colony in 1997, it said it was stepping in.
Technically, the central government can do this, but it doesn't look good. Article 18 of the Basic Law says that the congressional Standing Committee can add laws on defense, foreign affairs and other matters outside Hong Kong's autonomy. National security falls into that.
For Cheng and others in the pro-democracy camp, the move is the latest in a series of steps that mean the end of “one-country, two systems.” But, he said, “We have to admit that this is legal."
CONCERN OVER ARRESTS
After the initial announcement, the biggest shock came in Article 4 of the proposal, which reads in part: “When needed, relevant national security organs of the Central People’s Government will set up agencies in (Hong Kong) to fulfill relevant duties to safeguard national security.”
Speculation swirled. Would Chinese police be able to arrest people in Hong Kong? Would arrested protesters be questioned by both local and national police?
“This may be worrisome. It depends on what the bill says about what powers these people have," said Albert Chen, a constitutional law scholar at Hong Kong University and member of a committee that advises the congressional Standing Committee on the Basic Law.
“If these people have powers of arrest, of search of people’s home or offices, I think people would find it very difficult to accept that,” he said.
Details may emerge at upcoming committee meetings in late June and late August.
The protests in Hong Kong and the reaction in Beijing illustrate a fundamental divide that has once again bubbled to the surface.
The freedom of expression and other rights that Hong Kong residents have under “one country, two systems” allow for protests and public criticism of the government. It can, at times, be messy.
China's ruling Communist Party sees stability as vital to maintaining its grip on the country, including the territories of Hong Kong and nearby Macao.
“One country, two systems” is not about to disappear. Hong Kong will continue to manage most of its local affairs, from taxation to common crime. But Beijing is poised to wield an increasingly heavier hand when it comes to dissent and any possible challenges to its ultimate control of Hong Kong.