Pro-democracy legislators in Hong Kong on Friday hit back after Beijing introduced a new national security law that could limit protests and dramatically reduce the territory’s autonomy.
“This is the end of Hong Kong and it’s like the end of our homeland,” Tanya Chan, a member of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council said at the start of China’s annual National People’s Congress in Beijing, where the legislation was set to be discussed.
“I recall the time when I was young, and I believed in ‘one country, two systems,’ and I believed we were going to showcase to the world that Hong Kong people can rule Hong Kong and that we have high autonomy,” she added. “But now, I’m not yet 50-years-old and suddenly all is gone.”
Fellow lawmaker and chairman of Hong Kong’s Democratic party, Wu Chi-wai, also told NBC News: “The rule of law in Hong Kong is over, because of the implementation of the national security ordinance.”
The territory was handed to China after British colonial rule ended in 1997 and governed by a unique model aimed at guaranteeing freedoms not granted in mainland China.
China’s National People’s Congress — the country’s annual grand political convention where major policy legislation is passed by the ruling Communist Party — announced on Thursday it would deliberate a bill on “establishing and improving the legal system and enforcement mechanisms” for Hong Kong in order to “safeguard national security.”
The bill would allow China to sidestep the territory’s own legislative body to crack down on activity Beijing considers subversive and represented a major turning point. It is widely expected to pass.
Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam, currently in Beijing for the annual congress, said in a statement that she supported the bill that would safeguard security and was in the interests of all Hong Kong residents.
Lam said violence and disturbances had escalated in the last year “seriously jeopardizing public safety.”
Last year, Hong Kong erupted with paralyzing protests as demonstrators challenged a separate bill that would have allowed residents to be extradited to China. Although that bill was shelved, the demonstrations morphed into a wider movement against the erosion of civil liberties.
Hong Kong is a growing flashpoint for U.S.-China relations.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo condemned the decision on Friday as unilateral and arbitrary.
“The United States condemns the PRC proposal to impose national security legislation on Hong Kong and strongly urges Beijing to reconsider,” he tweeted. “We stand with the people of Hong Kong.”
Earlier this month he said the U.S. would delay a report assessing whether Hong Kong was sufficiently autonomous from China to warrant Washington’s special economic treatment.
“Any effort to impose national security legislation that does not reflect the will of the people of Hong Kong would be highly destabilizing,” Minister Counselor for Public Affairs at the U.S. Embassy Beijing, Frank J Whitaker, also told NBC News.
Washington has also been making louder noise over its support of Taiwan, including a potential $180 million arms sale announced this week, irritating China, in a growing war of words that some have described as a new Cold War.
In Beijing, legislators wearing face masks and having been tested for the coronavirus, gathered in Beijing for the delayed NPC meeting. There was little sign of social distancing and President Xi Jinping and other top party leaders appeared without protective masks. A minute’s silence was also held for victims of the deadly virus. Many observers and media tuned in online and also underwent tests and hotel stays to prevent spread of the disease.
Premier Li Keqiang in his address announced that for the first time in recent history China would not be announcing a gross domestic product (GDP) growth target for 2020, normally a highlight of the political convention, as a result of the turbulent economic times in the face of the pandemic.
“We have not set a specific target for economic growth for the year, mainly because the global epidemic and economic and trade situation are very uncertain, and China’s development is facing some unpredictable factors,” Li said at the start of parliament.
The world’s second largest economy also announced a slight rise in defense spending of 6.6 percent from 2019 but still the slowest rate in three decades.
The figure, set at 1.268 trillion yuan ($178.16 billion) in the national budget is closely watched as a barometer of how aggressively the country will beef up its military. China, increasingly active in the South China Sea and around the straits of Taiwan, gives only a raw figure for military expenditure, with no breakdown.
Its reported defense budget for 2020 is about a quarter of the U.S. defense budget last year, which stood at $686 billion.
Reuters contributed to this report.
Tesa Arcilla, Justin Solomon, Ed Flanagan, Dawn Liu and Abigail Williams contributed.