China's Parliament yesterday endorsed a plan that will pave the way for a national security law to be enacted in Hong Kong amid an international outcry and reservations in the territory.
The decision will now be handed to the National People's Congress (NPC) standing committee, which in consultation with Hong Kong's government and the Basic Law Committee, will flesh out details of the legislation.
The law will curtail foreign interference and activities that have "harmed the rule of law and threatened national sovereignty, security and development interests", according to the decision document.
The decision will be promulgated into Hong Kong's mini-Constitution, the Basic Law, bypassing the local Legislative Council.
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said the law is for Hong Kong's long-term prosperity and stability.
The territory has been rocked by protests for most of the past year, with activists saying it is a manifestation of anger at the government, but Beijing argues that foreign forces encouraged the unrest.
Asked if the new law means the central government is abandoning the "one country, two systems" principle by which Hong Kong is governed, the Premier demurred.
"'One country, two systems' is a fundamental policy the central government has all along fully and faithfully implemented... in which the people of Hong Kong govern Hong Kong with a high degree of autonomy," he said.
In place since the territory's return to China from British rule in 1997, the "one country, two systems" policy guarantees freedoms such as free speech and an independent judiciary for at least 50 years.
The resolution was passed overwhelmingly, with 2,878 votes for, one against, and six abstaining. Proceedings were not shown in mainland China but were broadcast live by Hong Kong media.
Moments after its passage, Japan said it was "seriously concerned" by the move, calling Hong Kong an "extremely important partner".
The United States, Britain, Australia and Canada said the new law would threaten freedom and breach an agreement on the autonomy of the former British colony.
But the territory's leader Carrie Lam pledged her administration's full cooperation, saying there is "the need and the urgency" to improve the legal system and enforcement mechanisms to "safeguard national security at the state level".
She said: "The legislation... aims to prevent, curb and sanction an extremely small minority of criminals... It will not affect the legitimate rights and freedoms enjoyed by Hong Kong residents."
A previous attempt to enact a national security Bill in 2003 brought half a million onto the streets in protest. The Bill was shelved.
Beijing had considered international reaction before the move, said a pro-government politician, adding that the reaction was expected. Ms Starry Lee said: "I'd like to take this opportunity to urge them not to interfere with Hong Kong affairs, because it doesn't help."
Lawmaker Charles Mok from the pan-democratic camp told The Straits Times that Hong Kongers have been worried about the national security legislation. "Now, the central government literally 'takes it into their own hands' to legislate, bypassing all the promised safeguards in the Basic Law about a high degree of autonomy... and even introducing security agents to operate in Hong Kong," he said.
"All of these are blatant violations of the Joint Declaration and the Basic Law. Our 'one country, two systems' framework has been taken away from us."