China's legislature has approved a proposal to impose a highly contentious national security law in Hong Kong, in an unprecedented move that critics say threatens fundamental political freedoms and civil liberties in the semi-autonomous territory.
China's rubber-stamp parliament, the National People's Congress, passed the resolution Thursday to enact the sweeping security legislation, which bans sedition, secession and subversion of the central government and allows mainland China's state security agencies to operate in the city.
Now approved, the NPC's standing committee will draft the law, which will be implemented upon promulgation by the Hong Kong government, bypassing the city's legislature via a rarely-enacted constitutional backdoor.
The law has sparked widespread protests in Hong Kong and has been denounced internationally, with opponents warning it could curtail many of the rights and freedoms promised to the city when it was handed from British to Chinese rule in 1997.
Following the protests, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Wednesday that his country would no longer consider the global financial hub as autonomous from China for trade and economic purposes.
In a statement, Pompeo denounced the law as a "disastrous decision" and "the latest in a series of actions that fundamentally undermine Hong Kong's autonomy and freedoms."
"No reasonable person can assert today that Hong Kong maintains a high degree of autonomy from China, given facts on the ground," said Pompeo.
Under the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act passed last year in support of Hong Kong's months-long pro-democracy protests, the US government must annually verify to Congress that the city remains autonomous from China, or risks losing its special status with the US.
Hong Kong's special trade and economic status with the US exempts it from the tariffs and export controls imposed by Washington on mainland China.
It is not immediately clear what repercussions Pompeo's announcement will bring. Hong Kong has long served as a regional hub for many international businesses, as well as a springboard for Chinese companies to expand internationally.
The US Consulate General in Hong Kong says it represents more than 1,200 US companies doing business there -- more than 800 are either regional offices or headquarters.
A congressional aide told CNN that the certification does not automatically trigger action and the next steps will be determined by US President Donald Trump.
David Stilwell, the top US diplomat in the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, said officials were looking at options "across the spectrum," including visa or economic sanctions.
US experts say the fallout could potentially be much wider, such as bringing an end to the extradition treaty between US and Hong Kong.
The US announcement is likely to infuriate Beijing and further strain relations between the two sides, following disputes over the coronavirus pandemic and a prolonged trade war.
The Chinese government has yet to respond to Pompeo's statement, which was released after midnight Beijing time. But the country's foreign ministry earlier vowed to hit back at any "external intervention."
"The legislation on upholding national security in Hong Kong is purely China's internal affair that allows no foreign interference," ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said on Wednesday when asked about a possible strong response from Washington to the law.
"In response to the erroneous practices of external intervention, we will take necessary countermeasures," Zhao said.
The chief editor of the Global Times, a government-controlled nationalist tabloid, lashed out at Washington on Thursday, accusing it of being "too narcissistic" in thinking that it could "grasp Hong Kong's fate in its hand."
"The only card in American hands is Hong Kong's special tariff status, and it has been thoroughly studied by the Chinese. If Washington wants to play this card, let it play it...Hong Kong is the source of the largest US trade surplus, with 85,000 US citizens living there. Let's see how the US will swallow the bitter fruit of canceling Hong Kong's special tariff status," Hu Xijin wrote in a defiant post on Weibo.
According to the Hong Kong government, the US had a surplus of US$31.1 billion in merchandise trade over Hong Kong in 2018, the single economy with which the US has the highest trade surplus.
"The biggest pillar for Hong Kong to remain an international financial center is its special relations with the huge economy of the Chinese mainland...China's strength dictates that there must be an international finance center on our coastline, and it will be where the Chinese people want it to be," Hu said in the Weibo post.
Sparking protests in Hong Kong
The security law, unveiled last week, has reignited anti-government protests in Hong Kong. Last year's pro-democracy demonstrations had lost momentum in recent months due to the coronavirus pandemic, but large crowds returned to the streets on Sunday, followed by sporadic protests on Wednesday.
The protests were met with a massive police presence and zero tolerance approach, with pepper spray, tear gas and searches used to quickly contain any potential unrest. Police have arrested more than 500 people since Sunday.
The Hong Kong government and pro-establishment figures have repeatedly sought to allay fears at home and overseas that the national security law could deal a huge blow to the city's autonomy, independent judiciary, freedoms of speech, the press and assembly.
In an exclusive interview with CNN on Wednesday, Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung, Hong Kong's second highest ranking official, said sought to reassure international business circles, investors and residents that the new security law would not change the governance of the former British colony.
"99.99% of the Hong Kong population will not be affected, they'll go about their lives, they continue their investment in Hong Kong," Cheung said, adding that only terrorists and separatists would be targeted by the law.
But when Cheung was pressed to say more, he was unable to provide specific information about the legislation, calling into question how much say Hong Kong's officials have over it. He had no answers for whether someone arrested under the law could be taken to mainland China for prosecution, or could the law apply retroactively for prosecutions, citing a lack of details before the drafting starts.
Cheung told CNN that any sanctions imposed on Hong Kong by the Trump administration would stand to hurt the US more, as it enjoys a large trade surplus with Hong Kong. "It's a double-edged sword," he said. "Any sanctions do nobody any good at all. It would hurt Hong Kong but it would doubly hurt the United States."