Protesters throng central Hong Kong on June 16, 2019, to oppose an extradition bill that was eventually withdrawn. (Photo: UCA News)
China aims to introduce a national security law for Hong Kong in a move that has drawn immediate opposition from the United States, Taiwan and pro-democracy activists.
The move is in response to sometimes violent protests that began last June as the territory faced its biggest unrest since it returned to Chinese rule in 1997.
State-run news agency Xinhua said the Chinese parliament will discuss the controversial new law at the meeting of the National People's Congress that was opening on May 22.
A preparatory meeting for the session adopted an agenda that included an item to review a bill "on establishing and improving the legal system and enforcement mechanisms for the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region to safeguard national security."
The laws would ban secession, foreign interference, "terrorism" and all seditious activities aimed at toppling the central government and any external interference in the former British colony, the South China Morning Post reported.
US President Donald Trump was quick to respond, warning that Washington would react "very strongly" against any attempt by Beijing to tighten its control over Hong Kong.
A high degree of autonomy and respect for human rights were key to preserving the territory's special status, US Department of State spokesperson Morgan Ortagus said.
"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," Ortagus said.
Hong Kong is supposed to enjoy rights and freedoms until 2047 under the “one country, two systems” framework agreed when the territory was returned to Beijing.
Taiwan's Mainland Affairs Council said in a statement that the Chinese Communist Party had wrongly blamed external influences and Hong Kong independence "separatists" for the instability in the territory. It urged China not to lead Hong Kong into “bigger turmoil.”
The protests that began in Hong Kong almost a year ago were over a now withdrawn extradition bill that would have allowed suspects to be sent to mainland China for trial.
The protests evolved into a broader call for democracy as clashes with police became increasingly violent, leading to a siege at Hong Kong Polytechnic University in November.
The "one country, two systems" model was designed to ensure Hong Kong maintained some autonomy, including an independent judiciary and more civil liberties than on the mainland.
Emily Lau, a member of Hong Kong's Democratic Party, told Al Jazeera that residents were "very concerned, very alarmed and very disturbed" over fears the new legislation "will take away our freedoms, will take away our personal safety and the rule of law."
She said it appears that Beijing “is breaking up all the promises and they want to legislate for us."
Maya Wang, a China researcher for Human Rights Watch, described the move as "the end of Hong Kong," tweeting that the development was "alarming not only for its people but also for the world."
While protests have been smaller since the Covid-19 pandemic began, they have persisted throughout the outbreak.
On May 18, 15 veteran pro-democracy activists appeared in court at the start of their trial on charges of organizing last year's rallies.
Their arrests were criticized by the United Kingdom, the European Union and the United Nations' human rights body, with the latter saying non-violent activists should not be prosecuted for attending unsanctioned demonstrations.