As China took the first step to impose a new national security law on Hong Kong, international opposition grew Friday, with the foreign ministers of Britain, Australia and Canada issuing a joint statement of alarm about the move and the European Union calling for the need to preserve the city's high degree of autonomy.
“We are deeply concerned at proposals for introducing legislation related to national security in Hong Kong,” the statement by British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, and his Australian and Canadian counterparts, Marise Payne and François-Philippe Champagne, said.
“Making such a law on Hong Kong’s behalf without the direct participation of its people, legislature or judiciary would clearly undermine the principle of ‘one country, two systems’, under which Hong Kong is guaranteed a high degree of autonomy.”
The three foreign ministers stressed that the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984, signed when Britain first agreed to hand over Hong Kong, then its colony, to Chinese control, remains legally binding and requires the city to maintain a high degree of autonomy until 2047.
Moreover, they said, the treaty “also provides that rights and freedoms, including those of the person, of the press, of assembly, of association and others, will be ensured by law in Hong Kong, and that the provisions of the two UN covenants on human rights (the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights) shall remain in force,” they said.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson weighed in as well on Friday, saying Britain “expect[s] China to respect Hong Kong’s rights and freedoms and high degree of autonomy.
“As a party to the Joint Declaration, the UK is committed to upholding Hong Kong’s autonomy and respecting the ‘one country, two systems’ model,” Johnson said via a spokesman.
Also on Friday, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, issued a statement on behalf of the entire bloc, containing a thinly veiled criticism of China’s bid to unilaterally impose security laws on Hong Kong.
“The EU considers that democratic debate, consultation of key stakeholders, and respect for protected rights and freedoms in Hong Kong would represent the best way of proceeding with the adoption of national security legislation, as foreseen in Article 23 of the Basic Law, while also upholding Hong Kong’s autonomy and the ‘one country two systems’ principle,” Borrell said.
Hong Kong’s Basic Law, the city’s mini-constitution, lays out the policies of China on Hong Kong, including the “one country two systems” principle, the local government and the fundamental rights and protections of Hongkongers.
Addressing the National People’s Congress’ annual meeting, where the new legislation was introduced, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang on Friday said that Beijing would establish “sound legal systems and enforcement mechanism for safeguarding national security” in Hong Kong.
Under the proposal, Beijing would directly apply new national security law to Hong Kong, bypassing the city’s local legislative procedures provided for in both the Joint Declaration and in the Basic Law.
The proposal followed almost a year of mass protests by Hongkongers, which erupted over a proposed extradition law that would have left them subject to mainland legal system, then evolved into a larger pro-democracy movement.
After its enactment, the new law is intended to prevent, stop and punish acts in Hong Kong that threaten national security. The proposal is said to ban all seditious and subversive activity aimed at toppling the central government as well as any external interference in the city’s affairs.
There is growing concern whether Hong Kong’s pro-democracy supporters might be at risk under the new law, prompting calls for Britain to recognise citizenship rights for those holding the British National (Overseas) passports – which were issued to those born before the handover but do not include the right to live in Britain.
“I call on the UK government to give residency rights to British National (Overseas) [passport holders],” Tom Tugendhat, chair of the British Parliament’s foreign affairs committee, told the BBC.
“Very sadly, General Secretary Xi and his communist tyrannical partners are putting at risk the prosperity of the Chinese people,” he added, referring to Chinese President Xi Jinping.
In February, Peter Goldsmith, a former English attorney general, told the British government to give Hongkongers holding BN (O) passports the right to live in Britain, saying this would not be in breach of its agreement with China.
The British government considered the option last year, during the Hong Kong protests, but no conclusion was made, reportedly due to the Foreign Office’s opposition.
Luke de Pulford, fellow of the London-based Hong Kong Watch group, also called on the Johnson government to extend citizenship to BN (O) holders.
Johnson “needs to send a strong and urgent signal to Beijing that their violation of the Joint Declaration comes at a price, and to set out how he intends to help UK nationals, who are on the brink of living under an authoritarian dictatorship,” de Pulford said.
According to Beijing’s plan, the Chinese national security organs could in future set up offices in Hong Kong to enforce the law. Beijing argued the law was needed out of the fear that Hong Kong would be turned into a base for overseas governments to plot secessionist or subversive activities against China.
Tugendhat called it “ridiculous” for China to use this as an excuse to curb freedom in Hong Kong.
“Hongkongers expressing their views and debating ideas is not subversion, it’s what free people do,” Tugendhat said. “It’s ridiculous to call it anything else. Only a tyrant would call it anything else.”
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