The Chinese government is preparing to impose new national security legislation on Hong Kong, raising fears of new curbs on the city’s freedoms as Beijing’s state media pledged the complete eradication of what it called a “cancer” of pro-independence sentiment.

Although it is not yet clear what the new rules will mandate, Beijing’s assertion of its law on Hong Kong is almost certain to change the complexion of the Asian financial centre, which has enjoyed freedoms of speech and assembly that don’t exist in mainland China.

In a strident commentary published Thursday, China’s central Xinhua News Agency cited “turmoil” in Hong Kong, and what it called a collusion with external forces and a pro-independence movement, as grounds for Beijing to act.

“We must take a zero-tolerance attitude to this cancer on the body of the country and the nation and be determined to eradicate it completely,” Xinhua wrote. The handover of Hong Kong to China in 1997 “made Hong Kong people regain the dignity and glory of being Chinese,” Xinhua wrote, arguing that the city’s prosperity and stability depend on eradicating secessionist forces.

Hong Kong’s democracy activists have long warned that mainland China is eroding the liberties that have made the city unique. China’s security apparatus routinely imprisons people for demanding the rights they are guaranteed under the country’s own constitution, and the spectre of the city falling under a security law written by Beijing created alarm in Hong Kong. Activists said it amounts to the biggest incursion by China into Hong Kong since the city’s handover from Britain.

“It will make Hong Kong like mainland China,” said Emily Lau, a pro-democracy politician in the city. She warned that it threatens to “take away our freedoms, rule of law and personal safety.”

In Canada, a spokesman for Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne said Ottawa is “concerned by these reports and we are following the developments closely.”

Given the “hundreds of thousands of Canadians living in Hong Kong, we have a vested interest in its stability and prosperity – the foundation of which are Hong Kong’s relative autonomy and basic freedoms,” Adam Austen said in a statement.

China under President Xi Jinping has overseen a tightening of the Communist Party’s control over the mainland, and a less forgiving approach to critics both inside and outside mainland borders.

“Safeguarding national security serves the fundamental interests of all Chinese, our Hong Kong compatriots included,” said Zhang Yesui, spokesman for the National People’s Congress, who described the planned legislation Thursday. He did not directly reference recent violence in Hong Kong, but said: “This is highly necessary.”

Worry that Beijing is preparing to enforce security by policing speech grew so acute that NordVPN, a provider of software that can circumvent internet censorship, saw a 120-fold increase in inquires from Hong Kong Thursday.

Since the handover of Hong Kong to China from Britain, the city has seen regular protests against encroachment from Beijing. Over the past year, violent demonstrations, and a heavy-handed police response, brought bloodshed to the streets, casting aside a tradition of peaceful protest that had held for decades.

“What’s clear is that the central government is going to establish a law in Hong Kong,” said Chen Duanhong, a law professor at Peking University. Such a move indicates that Beijing believes it is necessary to act, that it has the authority to do so and “that such a law would be able to solve some problems it has seen, in Hong Kong and in the management of the Hong Kong government.”

Very few protesters in Hong Kong have openly called for independence. Most have demanded instead that Beijing allow the city more freedom to manage its own affairs, including by electing its chief executive, the city’s top political figure. In recent years, the number of people in Hong Kong who self-identify as Chinese has receded, as the city’s residents assert a stronger “Hongkonger” identity.

Still, the likelihood of Beijing acting unilaterally toward Hong Kong had been dismissed even recently by legal experts, who saw it as a risky strategy for China, with potentially catastrophic results. This is in part because Chinese law does not fit well with Hong Kong’s common-law tradition.

“The nightmare has finally arrived,” said Johannes Chan, a constitutional expert who is former Dean of the Faculty of Law at the University of Hong Kong. “Human rights protection and all the procedural safeguards attending to criminal prosecution distinguish the system in Hong Kong from that of the mainland,” and if Beijing imposes its own laws, “this distinction is now obliterated.”

The Basic Law, the city’s constitutional document, requires Hong Kong to enact “laws on its own to prohibit any act of treason, secession, sedition, subversion against the Central People’s Government.”

“The phrase ‘on its own’ was added to ensure that mainland law shall not be directly imposed” on Hong Kong, Prof. Chan said

A 2003 effort to pass such a law in Hong Kong failed after it provoked a major public outcry. That law, had it passed, would have outlawed unapproved publication of some official information, allowed police to conduct warrantless searches in treason or subversion cases and provided authorities the power to ban groups on national-security grounds.

It defined sedition, in part, as “violent public disorder that would seriously endanger the stability of the People’s Republic of China,” although it included specific protections for some political speech.

This time, Beijing intends to act by amending an appendix of the Basic Law that contains Chinese law enforceable in Hong Kong, the South China Morning Post reported.

Such a move will “destroy, under the disguise of national security, the human-rights protections and protected freedoms that exist in Hong Kong,” said Wu Qiang, a former Tsinghua University scholar who is an expert in Chinese social movements.

“What is certain is that this law will definitely bring enormous psychological change to people in Hong Kong – that will be reflected right away. It will possibly push Hong Kong people closer to the state of despair,” he said. “Beijing is always desperate to realize full control.”

Joshua Wong, one of Hong Kong’s most prominent young protesters, warned on Twitter that “the implication for all foreign organizations & investors is deadly dangerous.”

“Hong Kong as we know it is gone,” observer and analyst Bill Bishop wrote on Twitter.

The imposition of such a law by Beijing also seems certain to heighten the conflict between China and the United States.

U.S. President Donald Trump, who has ratcheted up his anti-China rhetoric as he seeks re-election in November, told reporters at the White House on Thursday that “nobody knows yet” the details of China’s plan. “If it happens, we’ll address that issue very strongly,” Mr. Trump said, without elaborating.

Later Thursday, the U.S. State Department warned China against imposing a new national-security legislation on Hong Kong, saying a high-degree of autonomy and respect for human rights are key to preserving the territory’s special status.

“Any effort to impose national-security legislation that does not reflect the will of the people of Hong Kong would be highly destabilizing, and would be met with strong condemnation from the United States and the international community,” spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said.

Also on Thursday, Republican and Democratic senators said they would soon introduce legislation to impose sanctions on Chinese officials if Beijing violates Hong Kong’s independence.

Hong Kong enjoys special treatment under U.S. law, which is predicated on it maintaining a high degree of autonomy.

The city “is being used by Beijing as a battlefield to provoke the U.S.,” said Eddie Chu, a pro-democracy member of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council.]

The Globe and Mail, May 21, 2020