China approves sweeping national security legislation for Hong Kong, jeopardizing the city’s autonomy

China approved sweeping new national security legislation for Hong Kong on Thursday, in a move that jeopardizes the city’s autonomy, has sparked pro-democracy protests and drawn fierce criticism from the United States. 

Critics have warned the law could spell the end of Hong Kong as a global financial hub. The legislation’s adoption by China’s National People’s Congress, the nation’s rubber-stamp Parliament, comes less than 24 hours after the Trump administration said that it no longer considers the former British colony to be autonomous from mainland China.

A “disastrous decision,” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Wednesday, denouncing the law. It bans sedition, secession and other forms of subversion against Beijing. It also allows China’s state security agencies to operate in the city. 

President Donald Trump has signaled he is considering sanctions or other punitive measures such as visa restrictions or tariffs against China for the move.

It erodes Hong Kong’s “one country, two systems” political, legal and economic framework, in place since 1997. The policy, set to expire in 2047, enshrined freedoms of speech, press, assembly and an independent judiciary.

Hong Kong has swiftly become a new battleground in escalating Cold War-like tensions between Washington and Beijing. The world’s two largest economies have for years sparred over areas from human rights to technology.

However, despite the signing of the first phase of a trade deal in January, relations between the superpowers have deteriorated sharply in recent months as each side has accused the other of wrongdoing over the coronavirus outbreak. 

Daniel Russel, a former Asia affairs adviser to President Barack Obama and now vice president of the Asia Society Policy Institute, a U.S.-based think tank, said China’s new legislation is a “decisive show of force by (China’s President) Xi Jinping, signaling a willingness to defy international opinion, to challenge the United States, and to threaten the people of Hong Kong.”

Pompeo’s announcement Wednesday that Hong Kong no longer merits special treatment under U.S. law was something he was required to make under U.S. legislation that grants Hong Kong special trading status – including exemptions from certain tariffs and export controls that the United States imposes on China.

“Hong Kong and its dynamic, enterprising, and free people have flourished for decades as a bastion of liberty, and this decision gives me no pleasure,” Pompeo said. “While the United States once hoped that free and prosperous Hong Kong would provide a model for authoritarian China, it is now clear that China is modeling Hong Kong after itself.” 

China has dismissed concerns the law will limit freedoms in Hong Kong. Carrie Lam, the city’s pro-Beijing leader, has called it a “responsible” move that will protect Hong Kong’s law-abiding majority. The law is due to be operational from September.

Last year, pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong held disruptive rallies for weeks to voice their opposition to an extradition law for criminal suspects. Beijing put the bill on hold, but did not fully withdraw it, in a bid to restore order in the city.