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EU 'very seriously concerned' as China adopts national security law for Hong Kong

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Protesters gesture with five fingers, signifying the "Five demands - not one less" during a protest in Mong Kok, Hong Kong, Friday, June 12, 2020.
Protesters gesture with five fingers, signifying the "Five demands - not one less" during a protest in Mong Kok, Hong Kong, Friday, June 12, 2020.   -   Copyright  AP Photo/Kin Cheung
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China has approved a contentious law that would allow authorities to crack down on subversive and secessionist activity in Hong Kong, sparking fears that it would be used to curb opposition voices in the semi-autonomous territory.

The European Union's leadership said it "deplored " the adoption of the law and that it was "very seriously concerned" about it.

Tam Yiu-Chung, Hong Kong's sole representative to the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress, confirmed to reporters Tuesday that the law had been passed. He said punishments would not include the death penalty, but did not elaborate on further details such as whether the law could be applied retroactively.

"We hope the law will serve as a deterrent to prevent people from stirring up trouble," Tam said. "Don't let Hong Kong be used as a tool to split the country."

The legislation is aimed at curbing subversive, secessionist and terrorist activities, as well as foreign intervention in the city's affairs. It follows months of anti-government protests that at times descended into violence in Hong Kong last year.

The law has met with strong opposition within Hong Kong and condemnation from former colonial ruler Britain, the U.S., the European Union and others.

Asked about the adoption of the law during a press conference on Tuesday morning, EU Council President Charles Michel said that it "risks seriously undermining the high degree of autonomy of Hong Kong and have a detrimental effect on the independence of the judiciary and the rule of law. We deplore this decision".

The bloc's Commission chief, Ursula von der Leyen added that EU officials "have made clear on several occasions, including in our direct contact last week with the Chinese leadership, the new legislation does not conform with Hong Kong's basic law nor with China's international commitments both in terms of adoption procedure and in substance."

"We're very clear on that topic that for us it's critical and we're very seriously concerned about it," she added.

Human rights groups have warned the law could target opposition politicians seen as insufficiently loyal to Beijing for arrest or disqualification from running in September elections for the Legislative Council.

Amnesty International described the legislation as "the greatest threat to human rights in the city's recent history".

"From now on, China will have the power to impose its own laws on any criminal suspect it chooses," the NGO's head of China, Joshua Rosenzweig said in a statement.

"China’s eagerness to pass this law quickly is also an ominous signal for the legislative elections coming up in Hong Kong in September, with a threat that the security law could be used against pro-democracy candidates," he added.

Ahead of the announcement, the Trump administration said Monday it will bar defense exports to Hong Kong and will soon require licenses for the sale of items to Hong Kong that have both civilian and military uses.

The administration has warned for weeks that if the law was passed, it would take action to end special U.S. trade and commercial preferences Hong Kong had enjoyed since reverting to Chinese rule in 1997.

"The United States is forced to take this action to protect U.S. national security," Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement. "We can no longer distinguish between the export of controlled items to Hong Kong or to mainland China. We cannot risk these items falling into the hands of the People's Liberation Army, whose primary purpose is to uphold the dictatorship of the (ruling Communist Party) by any means necessary."

The U.S. Senate on Thursday unanimously approved a bill to impose sanctions on businesses and individuals — including the police — that undermine Hong Kong's autonomy or restrict freedoms promised to the city's residents.

Britain says it could offer residency and possible citizenship to around 3 million of Hong Kong's 7.5 million people.

China has denounced all such moves as gross interference in its internal affairs and foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian on Monday said Beijing has decided to retaliate with visa restrictions on "U.S. personnel who perform badly on Hong Kong related issues."

"The U.S. side's attempt to obstruct China from promoting Hong Kong's national security legislation through the so-called sanctions will never succeed," Zhao told reporters at a daily briefing.

China decided to use the National People's Congress to enact the legislation after opposition within Hong Kong's Legislative Council and within society as a whole made it impossible to pass at the local level.

The law is seen as the most significant erosion to date of Hong Kong's British-style rule of law and high degree of autonomy that China promised Hong Kong would enjoy at least through 2047 under the ``one country, two systems'' framework.

Passage of the legislation will also allow the central government in Beijing also would set up a national security office in Hong Kong to collect and analyze intelligence and deal with criminal cases related to national security.