BEIJING — China is moving to impose new national security laws that would give the Communist Party more control over Hong Kong, threatening to erode the freedoms that distinguish the global, commercial city from the rest of the country.
The proposal, announced on Thursday, could reignite the fear, anger and protests over the creeping influence of China’s authoritarian government in the semiautonomous region. It could also inflame worries that Beijing is trying to dismantle the distinct political and cultural identity that has defined the former British colony since it was reclaimed by China in 1997.
In the party’s view, such laws are necessary to protect China’s sovereignty from external forces determined to undermine its rule. The legislation would give Beijing power to take aim at the large, often violent antigovernment protests that roiled Hong Kong for much of last year — unrest that has posed a direct challenge to the party and its top leader, Xi Jinping.
Similar rules proposed by the Hong Kong government in 2003 would have empowered the authorities to close seditious newspapers and conduct searches without warrants. That proposal was abandoned after it triggered large protests.
This time, a broad outline for the new rules would likely be approved by China’s rubber stamp legislature, the National People’s Congress, which holds its annual session starting Friday. The process would effectively circumvent the Hong Kong government, undercutting the relative autonomy granted to the territory through a political formula known as “one country, two systems.”
Zhang Yesui, spokesman for the National People’s Congress, said at a news briefing on Thursday that delegates would review a plan to set up a legal framework and enforcement mechanism for safeguarding national security in Hong Kong. He did not elaborate on the details of the plan.
“National security is the bedrock underpinning the stability of the country,” Mr. Zhang said. “Safeguarding national security serves the fundamental interest of all Chinese, Hong Kong compatriots included.”
In a clear effort to head off international concerns, China’s foreign ministry sent a letter on Thursday night to ambassadors posted to Beijing, urging them to support the legislation and laying out the government’s position.
“The opposition in Hong Kong have long colluded with external forces to carry out acts of secession, subversion, infiltration and destruction against the Chinese mainland,” the letter said.
The call to enact national security laws plays to the heart of the unrest in Hong Kong: a fear that China is chipping away at the city’s cherished liberties, such as judicial independence and free speech. It also fuels concern that the Hong Kong government has increasingly put Beijing’s interests above those of the city’s residents.
The protests in Hong Kong started in June last year after the local government tried to enact an extradition law that would have allowed residents to be transferred to the mainland to face an opaque and often harsh judicial system. Though the Hong Kong authorities later withdrew the bill, the demonstrations continued over broader political demands, including a call for free elections and an independent investigation into police conduct.
The Hong Kong government and protesters have both adopted largely uncompromising positions, and demonstrations often descended into clashes between protesters hurling Molotov cocktails and police officers firing tear gas and rubber bullets. While the protests have been muted during the coronavirus pandemic, the frustrations in the city have continued to simmer.
As the protests have persisted, Beijing has become increasingly vocal in its objections.
China has denounced the protests as acts of terrorism and accused western nations of fomenting the unrest. The party’s Central Committee, a conclave of about 370 senior officials, set the legislative measures in motion in October when it announced after a four-day meeting that it would roll out new steps to “safeguard national security” in Hong Kong.
Mr. Xi, one of China’s most powerful leaders in decades, warned in December that the party would not allow challenges to its sovereignty or the interference of “external forces,” a veiled rebuke to the protest movement in Hong Kong.
One month later, the party signaled it was taking a harder line when it replaced its top representative in Hong Kong with a senior official with a record of working closely with the security services. Whereas the party had until recently left the handling of the crisis to the city’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, Beijing is now weighing in more directly with warnings not to test its patience.
On Thursday, the People’s Daily, the official mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party, and Xinhua, the state-run news agency, ran commentaries calling for the “tumor” of pro-independence sentiment in Hong Kong to be excised. Neither specified how this might be done.
Chinese officials have long been frustrated that the Hong Kong government has been unable to pass its own security legislation. Article 23 of the Basic Law, the mini-constitution governing Hong Kong’s status under China, requires the territory to “enact laws on its own to prohibit any act of treason, secession, sedition and subversion” against the Chinese government.
The protests have only intensified the calls for such rules. Pro-Beijing leaders in Hong Kong have said that stringent laws are needed to prevent further street violence and protect China’s national sovereignty.
The legislation being drafted is “not necessarily a stopgap measure but a necessary means to plug some glaring loopholes in Hong Kong’s national security laws,” said Lau Siu-kai, a former senior Hong Kong government official who is now vice president of the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macau Studies, an elite Beijing advisory group.
Mr. Lau said that the legislature would pave the way for its top committee to draft a security law specific to Hong Kong. Beijing blames much of the unrest in the semiautonomous territory on interference by unseen foreign forces, and the focus of the upcoming legislation would be to stop that meddling, he said.
“The main purpose is to demonstrate Beijing’s determination and ability to safeguard sovereignty and national security and to end the turmoil in Hong Kong,” he added.
Almost immediately, the move by the Chinese legislature prompted concerns about the ramifications for Hong Kong and condemnation by the city’s democracy advocates.
On internet forums and chat groups frequently used to organize protests, some people expressed concerns about whether their past conversations could implicate them should the new law be passed. Others urged users to download virtual private networking services to cloak their identities while some debated whether to delete their chat histories and disband these discussion groups.
“Hong Kong independence is the only way out,” chanted a group of protesters gathered in a luxury shopping mall on Thursday.
Users flocked to LIHKG, a Reddit-like forum popular with protesters, to trade jokes about how the impending legislation would change life in the city. Some users said they would swear allegiance to China with oaths laced with references to the protests while others bid farewell to the city as they knew it.
Nathan Law, a pro-democracy advocate, urged protesters not to give up. “At this time last year, didn’t we believe that the extradition law was sure to pass? Hong Kongers have always created miracles,” he wrote on Facebook.
The imposition of security legislation in Hong Kong also represents a fresh blow to the confidence of investors, tourists and others who have helped propel the city to prosperity over the past half century.
Retail sales started dropping last summer during the city’s street protests and further slumped as the coronavirus epidemic took hold. Rents and real estate prices have started to fall. Some of the city’s citizens and expatriates are looking to more politically stable islands like Singapore and Taiwan to live and park their cash.
Hong Kong has long served to channel money between China and the outside world. But a broader security crackdown by Beijing may prompt more investors to worry that Hong Kong is no longer beyond China’s authoritarian reach.
“This is the end of Hong Kong,” said Dennis Kwok, an opposition lawmaker. “I foresee that the international status of Hong Kong as a city — an international city — will be gone very soon.”
Keith Bradsher reported from Beijing and Austin Ramzy and Tiffany May from Hong Kong. Elaine Yu and Ezra Cheung contributed reporting from Hong Kong.