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China’s proposed legislation would curtail Hong Kong’s autonomy. Why now?

According to the “One Country, Two Systems” policy, Hong Kong is an autonomous Chinese territory. But in recent years, pro-democracy activists there have resisted Beijing’s efforts to bring it under tighter control. Now, a proposed Chinese law seeks to ban what it considers “subversive” activity in Hong Kong. Amna Nawaz talks to Bonnie Glaser of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    We return now to the drastic proposal from China to tighten its grip on Hong Kong.

    At their annual gathering in Beijing, China's leaders today unveiled a new set of measures designed to curtail freedoms enjoyed in Hong Kong since its transfer to China from Britain 23 years ago.

    Amna Nawaz has more.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Hong Kong is supposed be semiautonomous under the so-called one country, two systems policy.

    But, in recent years, pro-democracy activists have resisted efforts to bring Hong Kong under tighter mainland control. The new Chinese legislation is short on details, but would seek to ban what it refers to as secession, sedition and subversion in Hong Kong, all this as China seeks to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic, which began there, and relations with the United States continue to worsen.

    Joining me is Bonnie Glaser, the director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. It's a Washington-based think tank.

    Bonnie Glaser, welcome back to the "NewsHour."

    So as we mentioned, the law is a little vague. We don't have a lot of details. But what do we think the practical impact could be when it comes to businesses or people, freedom of press in Hong Kong?

  • Bonnie Glaser:

    Well, it remains unclear, I think, as to how Beijing is going to implement the law.

    It will likely lead to further erosion of rights and freedoms in the territory, possibly greater control over the media. The law will permit mainland security forces to operate in Hong Kong. And that could potentially result in new law enforcement organs that operate alongside those that already exist.

    We could see an implementation of China's patriotic education that preaches Chinese Communist Party-approved messages that — essentially political indoctrination. The law could give new authorities to remove opposition lawmakers or even prosecute them.

    There could be further erosion of Hong Kong's independent judicial system.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, what's behind this move? Why would President Xi make this specific move at this specific time?

  • Bonnie Glaser:

    Well, I think that the massive protests in Hong Kong last year, with millions of people on the streets clamoring for democracy and desecrating the PRC flag, were very embarrassing for Xi Jinping.

    And I think he wants to avoid a resumption of those kinds of large-scale protests as the pandemic gets under control. So, with this fear in China that the situation in Hong Kong will deteriorate, I think that the Chinese have decided to take preemptive measures to strengthen their control over Hong Kong.

    So, the basic law, which is Hong Kong's mini-constitution, really enabled the people of Hong Kong to keep their freedoms and have separate laws from mainland China.

    But there was also a provision of Article 23, which would have contained these national security laws. And it was never, ever really built out by the legislature in Hong Kong.

    So what the National People's Congress has done is take a preemptive step to pass that law themselves.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Bonnie, could a preemptive move like this actually spark more demonstrations? And, if they do, what would be the likely response from mainland China?

  • Bonnie Glaser:

    This move could spark greater demonstrations, but there may be some people who don't want to return to the street because they fear that the new law will enable more people to be imprisoned and tried and incarcerated.

    But I think that the radical activists, those are really committed to democracy, will take to the streets, and we will see greater violence. And the question, of course, always in everyone's mind is whether the Chinese will intervene with force.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Bonnie, we're already seeing some response from U.S. lawmakers.

    There was one statement earlier today from Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley, who is, of course, a Democrat.

    And he said — quote — "Today is a dark day for Hong Kong and the world. Any illusion that China honors its obligations to respect Hong Kong's autonomy is shattered by this undemocratic power grab."

    Beyond statements like that, Bonnie, is there anything else that U.S. or allies can do to pressure China and to make sure that Hong Kong's autonomy is protected?

  • Bonnie Glaser:

    Well, the United States can work in concert with other countries to put pressure on Hong Kong, certainly through rhetoric, but that probably won't be enough.

    I think that there does need to be consideration of sanctions in specific instances. And so we need to develop targeted sanctions that might be placed on police units or Chinese Communist Party officials, and maybe even banks that engage in transactions with individuals and entities that are violating one country, two systems.

    And I believe that that's what the new legislation that is under consideration in Congress is really going to take a look at.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That is Bonnie Glaser of the Center for Strategic and International Studies joining us today.

    Thanks very much.

  • Bonnie Glaser:

    Thank you.

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