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 Thursday, reignited the fear, anger, and protests over the creeping influence of China’s authoritarian government in the semiautonomous region. It also inflamed 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 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 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,” Zhang said. “Safeguarding national security serves the fundamental interest of all Chinese, Hong Kong compatriots included.”
China’s foreign ministry sent a letter 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 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.
China has denounced the protests as acts of terrorism and accused Western nations of fomenting unrest.
Xi, one of China’s most powerful leaders in decades, warned in December that the party would not allow challenges to its authority 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 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.