BEIJING — China is moving to impose new national security laws that would give the Communist Party more authority in Hong Kong, a proposal announced on Thursday that could reignite fear and anger over the erosion of freedoms that distinguish the city from the rest of the country.
Such rules would allow Beijing 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. The legislative push in Beijing marks the most aggressive step by the party to exert its influence over the former British colony since it was reclaimed by China in 1997.
Any legislation put forth in China could allow Hong Kong officials to crack down on dissent under the guise of protecting national security. Similar legislation 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.”
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.
The party has denounced the protests as acts of terrorism and accused western nations of fomenting the unrest. 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.
In January, 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.
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 pass. 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.
“It would be very damaging to Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy,” said Lee Cheuk-yan, a former Hong Kong lawmaker and general secretary of the pro-democracy Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions. “They would turn Hong Kong into another Chinese city, and turn the rule of law, which is already quite thin, into rule by law and rule by fear.”
Keith Bradsher reported from Beijing and Austin Ramzy from Hong Kong. Tiffany May contributed reporting from Hong Kong.