China's top legislative body has taken up a draft national security law for Hong Kong that has been strongly criticized as undermining the semi-autonomous territory's legal and political institutions.
The bill was submitted Thursday to the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress for deliberation, the official Xinhua News Agency said. It covers four categories of crimes: succession, subversion of state power, local terrorist activities and collaborating with foreign or external foreign forces to endanger national security.
No details on the definitions of those crimes or the applicable punishments were given. It also wasn't clear if the law would be passed during the current three-day session, which is scheduled to end on Saturday.
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Beijing has repeatedly said it is determined to press ahead despite the criticism.
“With hostile forces in and outside of Hong Kong colluding with each other in recent years, the absence of relevant legal system and enforcement mechanisms on safeguarding national security in the (Hong Kong Special Administrative Region) has created major risks for China’s national security,” Xinhua said in a commentary.
Li Zhanshu, the ruling Communist Party’s third-ranking official and head of the National People’s Congress, was presiding over the meeting of the Standing Committee, which handles most legislative tasks in between the annual sessions of the full and largely ceremonial congress..
The congress last month ratified a decision to enact such legislation at the national level after Hong Kong’s own Legislative Council was unable to do so because of strong local opposition. Critics say it could severely limit free speech and opposition political activity.
Legal experts say Beijing's justifications for the law are debatable.
China acted following widespread and sometimes violent anti-government protests in the territory last year that Beijing saw as a dangerous campaign to split Hong Kong from the rest of the country.
The U.S. has said that the law if passed will revoke some of the special privileges it grants to Hong Kong after the former British colony was handed over to China in 1997. Britain has said it will offer passports and a path to citizenship to as many as 3 million Hong Kong residents.
On Wednesday, the Group of Seven leading economies called on China to reconsider its plans in a joint statement voicing “grave concern regarding China’s decision to impose a national security law on Hong Kong,” adding that it would breach Beijing’s international commitments as well as the territory’s constitution.
Beijing has denounced the moves as interference in its affairs.
The Xinhua commentary sought to assuage concerns by saying the legislation would only target “acts and activities that severely undermine national security, and for the overwhelming majority of Hong Kong residents, they need not worry. In fact, people in Hong Kong will be able to live in a safer environment under the protection of the national security laws.”
Hong Kong activist Joshua Wong said Thursday that opposing the law “could be my last testimony (while) I am still free.”
“Our long march to democracy will be forced into a prolonged period of crackdown,” he said during an online event to promote democracy and the market economy hosted in Copenhagen, Denmark.
Taiwan, meanwhile, announced Thursday that it will set up an office to support Hong Kongers seeking to leave the territory now that China is moving forward with the national security law.
The office opening July 1 will offer assistance to professionals seeking to move to Taiwan, including for school, employment, investment, entrepreneurship and immigration, according to a statement by the Mainland Affairs Council in Taiwan, which handles the island’s relations with Beijing.
The legislation is broadly seen as an additional measure further eroding the legal distinctions between Hong Kong and the mainland.
Earlier this month, Hong Kong’s legislature approved a contentious bill making it illegal to insult the Chinese national anthem after pro-democracy lawmakers boycotted the vote out of protest.
Senior opposition figures have also been arrested for taking part in demonstrations and questions have arisen over whether the national security legislation will be used to disqualify pro-democracy candidates in September's elections for the Beijing-controlled Legislative Council.
Associated Press writers Zen Soo in Hong Kong, Geir Moulson in Berlin and Jan M. Olsen in Copenhagen, Denmark, contributed to this report.
This story has been corrected to say that a draft of the national security bill was submitted for deliberation, not passed by the standing committee.