The Chinese government is set to present a controversial Hong Kong security law at its congress, the most important political event of the year.
Hong Kong’s “mini-constitution” says it must enact security laws to prevent “treason, secession and sedition”.
But such laws have never been passed and now Beijing is now attempting to push them through.
The annual National People’s Congress largely rubber-stamps decisions already taken by the Communist leadership.
The BBC’s China correspondent, Robin Brant, says that what makes the situation so incendiary is that Beijing could, in theory, simply bypass Hong Kong’s elected legislators and impose the changes.
Hong Kong is what is known as a “special administrative region” of China.
It has observed a “one country, two systems” policy since Britain returned sovereignty in 1997, which has allowed it certain freedoms the rest of China does not have.
Pro-democracy activists fear that China pushing through the law could mean “the end of Hong Kong” – that is, the effective end of its autonomy and these freedoms.
Last year, Hong Kong experienced a sustained wave of violent protest and public fury as well as demands for democratic reform.
The Chinese leadership believes this law is needed to prevent a repeat of those protests.
What is Beijing trying to do?
According to the Basic Law – the territory’s mini-constitution – Hong Kong’s government is required to pass national security legislation.
However, an attempt in 2003 failed after 500,000 people took to the streets in opposition.
So the latest attempt to push through the laws has caused outrage among pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong.
One legislator on Thursday called the laws “the most controversial [issue] in Hong Kong since the handover”.
China could essentially place this law into Annex III of the Basic Law, which covers national laws that must be implemented in Hong Kong – either by legislation, or decree.
Hong Kong has a far higher degree of democracy and free speech than mainland China.
But pro-democracy activists fear the law will be used to muzzle protests – as similar laws in China are used to silence opposition to the Communist Party.
Last year’s mass protests in Hong Kong were sparked by a bill that would have allowed extraditions to mainland China.
The bill was paused, then withdrawn – but the protests continued until the virus outbreak at the end of the year.
What do opponents say the dangers are?
A number of pro-democracy figures in Hong Kong have spoken out in despair essentially worried that this move spells out the end for Hong Kong’s freedoms.
Civic Party lawmaker Dennis Kwok said “if this move takes place, ‘one country, two systems’ will be officially erased. This is the end of Hong Kong”.
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Student activist and politician Joshua Wong tweeted that the move was an attempt by Beijing to “silence Hong Kongers’ critical voices with force and fear”.
The US also weighed in, saying the move could be “highly destabilising” and undermine China’s obligations. President Trump said the US would react strongly if it went through – without giving details.
It is currently considering whether to extend Hong Kong’s preferential trading and investment privileges.
The last British governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten, called the move a “comprehensive assault on the city’s autonomy”
Why is China doing this?
Sources at the National People’s Congress (NPC) said Beijing can no longer wait for Hong Kong to pass its own law, nor can it continue to watch the growth of what it sees as a violent anti-government movement.
One source told the South China Morning Post: “We can no longer allow acts like desecrating national flags or defacing of the national emblem in Hong Kong.”
Beijing may also fear September’s elections to Hong Kong’s legislature. If last year’s success for pro-democracy parties in district elections is repeated, government bills could potentially be blocked.
Announcing the move on Thursday, spokesman Zhang Yesui gave little away, saying the measure would “improve” on one country, two systems.
Mr Zhang said: “National security is the bedrock underpinning the stability of the country. Safeguarding national security serves the fundamental interest of all Chinese, our Hong Kong compatriots included.”
After debating the issue, the NPC will vote on it next week. The matter would then not advance until June, when it goes before China’s Standing Committee.
An editorial in the state-run China Daily said the law meant that “those who challenge national security will necessarily be held accountable for their behaviour”.
In Hong Kong, the pro-Beijing DAB party said it “fully supported” the proposals, which were made “in response to Hong Kong’s rapidly worsening political situation in recent years”.
What is Hong Kong’s legal situation?
Hong Kong was under British control for more than 150 years up to 1997.
The British and Chinese governments signed a treaty – the Sino-British Joint Declaration – that agreed Hong Kong would have “a high degree of autonomy, except in foreign and defence affairs”, for 50 years.
This was enshrined in the Basic Law, which runs out in 2047.
As a result, Hong Kong’s own legal system, borders, and rights – including freedom of assembly and free speech – are protected.
But Beijing has the ability to veto any changes to the political system and has, for example, ruled out direct election of the chief executive.
Hong Kong saw widespread political protests in 2019 but these became much smaller during the coronavirus outbreak.
But anger is still simmering, as chaotic scenes n Hong Kong’s legislative chamber on Monday showed: a number of pro-democracy lawmakers were dragged out during a row about the Chinese national anthem.
The government on its part has signalled its determination to act and recently charged prominent pro-democracy activists over last year’s protests.