China’s parliament has approved a decision to move forward with national security legislation for Hong Kong that critics fear could undermine the city’s autonomy.
The National People’s Congress on Thursday voted 2,878 to 1 in favour of the decision to empower its standing committee to draft the legislation, with six abstentions.
The legislators gathered in the Great Hall of the People burst into sustained applause when the vote tally was projected onto screens.
China says the legislation will be aimed at tackling secession, subversion, terrorism and foreign interference in the city but the plan, unveiled in Beijing last week, triggered the first big protests in Hong Kong for months.
The security law will alter the territory’s mini-constitution, or Basic Law, to require its government to enforce measures to be decided later by Chinese leaders. The plans have prompted widespread condemnation and strained China’s relations with the United States and Britain.
Al Jazeera’s Katrina Yu, reporting from Beijing, said the Chinese move “is taking place without any consultation, any debate with Hong Kong’s leaders or its government”.
“China is taking advantage of a legal loophole that completely bypasses Hong Kong’s legislative process.”
Details of the law are expected to be drawn up in coming weeks, and Chinese authorities and the Beijing-backed government in Hong Kong say there is no threat to the city’s autonomy and the new security law will be tightly focused.
But the US on Wednesday revoked its special status for Hong Kong, alleging the city was no longer autonomous from Beijing, paving the way for future sanctions and the removal of trading privileges in the financial hub.
Meanwhile, in Hong Kong, riot police were out in force as its legislators debated another piece of legislation, a bill that would criminalise disrespect of China’s national anthem.
Dozens of protesters gathered in a shopping mall to chant slogans but there was no repeat of disturbances the previous day when police made 360 arrests as thousands took to the streets in anger over the anthem bill and the national security legislation proposed by China.
Last year, the city was rocked for months by often violent pro-democracy demonstrations over an unsuccessful bid to introduce an extradition law to China.
The national security legislation is the latest issue to fuel fears in Hong Kong that Beijing is imposing its authority and eroding the high degree of autonomy the former British colony has enjoyed under a “one country, two systems” formula since it returned to Chinese rule in 1997.
Al Jazeera’s Adrian Brown, reporting from Hong Kong, said: “There is deep resentment towards this law in Hong Kong. And I think the protests that we saw on Wednesday are going to continue, if not intensify, even though protesters know Beijing is not going to reverse course.”
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Wednesday that Hong Kong no longer qualified for special treatment under US law, potentially dealing a crushing blow to its status as a major financial hub.
The proposed security law was “only the latest in a series of actions” undermining Hong Kong freedoms, he told Congress.
“No reasonable person can assert today that Hong Kong maintains a high degree of autonomy from China, given facts on the ground,” he said.
The security law could see Chinese intelligence agencies set up bases in the city.
Relations between the two superpowers have been tense over China’s claims in the South China Sea and trade. The coronavirus pandemic has also become an issue of acrimony.
“Already, international business is facing the pressure of increased tension between the US and China, but the enactment of China’s security law for Hong Kong could take the tension to a whole new level,” said Tara Joseph, president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong.
“This is show time for Hong Kong,” Joseph said in a commentary in the South China Morning Post.
US President Donald Trump has promised action over Hong Kong, with an announcement at the end of the week. More than 1,300 US companies have offices in the city, providing about 100,000 jobs.
China said it would take necessary countermeasures to any foreign interference into what it insists are its internal affairs.