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Beijing seeks to tighten grip over Hong Kong with new security bill

US senators propose legislation to sanction Chinese entities that violate city's sovereignty

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam attends the opening session of the National People's Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Friday.   © Reuters

HONG KONG/NEW YORK -- A national security bill that would tighten Beijing's grip over Hong Kong will be presented as a motion to the National People's Congress on Friday, fueling concerns that street protests will flare up again in the semi-autonomous city.

The proposed Chinese law is seen as a replacement of the controversial Article 23, which prohibits acts of "treason, secession, sedition, or subversion." The Hong Kong government was forced to shelve the legislation after half a million people protested against it in 2003.

"National security is the bedrock underpinning the stability of a country. Safeguarding national security serves the fundamental interest of all Chinese," Zhang Yesui, spokesman for the National People's Congress, said at a news briefing on Thursday.

Zhang said the move will "uphold and improve the institutional framework of 'one country, two systems'," adding that more details on the bill will be announced Friday.

Under the "one country, two systems" arrangement, Hong Kong is promised a high degree of autonomy and democratic freedoms not available in mainland China.

The Basic Law, Hong Kong's mini-constitution, stipulates that the Hong Kong government must enact its own national security law, but a past attempt was abandoned following massive protests.

Hong Kong stocks fell on the news of the new legislation, with the benchmark Hang Seng Index sliding more than 3% in morning trading.

U.S. lawmakers reacted to the move by Beijing by proposing a bill that would essentially sanction any Chinese officials that enforce such a law.

Senators Pat Toomey, a Republican, and Chris Van Hollen, a Democrat, said in a statement Thursday the bill would also require sanctions on banks that do business with such entities.

"In many ways, Hong Kong is the canary in the coal mine for Asia," Toomey said in the statement. "Beijing's growing interference could have a chilling effect on other nations struggling for freedom in China's shadow."

The sanctions, which Van Hollen described as "serious penalties," could fall on such people as police cracking down on protesters or Chinese Communist Party officials "responsible for imposing a 'national security' law on Hong Kong," according to the statement.

Republican Sen. Pat Toomey speaks with reporters on Capitol Hill, while Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell looks on.   © Reuters

The toughened stance toward the former British colony comes after Beijing appointed two new chiefs for its top offices in the city -- the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office, or HKMAO, and its liaison office -- earlier this year.

Xia Baolong, director of the cabinet-level HKMAO and a close ally of President Xi Jinping, reportedly met Hong Kong delegates to China's parliament on Thursday to introduce the draft resolution of the national security protocols.

The bill will voted on at the end of the annual parliamentary meetings on May 28, according to the South China Morning Post.

The proposed national security laws could bypass the city's lawmaking body, said Maggie Chan Man-ki, a local deputy to the National People's Congress, on her Facebook page, as China's laws can be applied within Hong Kong through promulgation if they are included in an annex of the Basic Law.

Yet such power has not been employed since Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1997.

"Once the national security law is enacted, it will mean Hong Kong is entering 'one country, one system'," said pro-democracy lawmaker Tanya Chan.

Beijing's tightening grip over Hong Kong risk putting the city's status as a global financial hub in jeopardy. The U.S. in November passed the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, which requires an annual review of Hong Kong's autonomy to maintain its preferential trade and investment treatments in Washington.

Earlier this month, Washington decided to postpone the report on Hong Kong's autonomy until the end of China's annual parliamentary sessions.

"In Hong Kong, our decision on whether to certify Hong Kong as having a high degree of autonomy from China is still pending," said U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in a news conference on Wednesday.

"We're closely watching what's going on there."

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