Rows of delegates at the National People's Congress in Beijing rubber-stamped a highly contentious national security law covering Hong Kong. Photo: AFP

Rubbing elbows is not the done thing in these surreal days of Covid-19 social distancing.

Neither is being squeezed into parts of Beijing’s Great Hall of the People like mask-wearing sardines. 

But on the final day of the National People’s Congress or China’s de-facto parliament, delegates shrugged off the cramped conditions to rubber-stamp a highly contentious national security law covering Hong Kong.

It dragged the city even closer to the power brokers in Beijing, destroying the social distancing of its special status, while infuriating Washington.

Immediately, the decision left critics sounding the “death knell” of the “One Country, Two Systems” model hammered out by the United Kingdom and China after British rule ended in 1997.

“The new law means that Hong Kong could be a simmering center of revolt for years. This summer could see violence – mostly at the hands of the police, but some by protesters – on a scale that dwarfs last year’s protests,” Foreign Policy stated in its weekly China Brief.

Mass pro-democracy demonstrations brought the Special Administrative Region to a standstill during a summer of discontent which continued into the autumn of 2019. 

Violent clashes frequently broke out between a hardcore element and Hong Kong’s police after tear gas and water cannons were used.

Only the outbreak of the Covid-19 epidemic halted the protests. But earlier this week, they broke out again over another proposed law, which would criminalize “mocking” China’s national anthem. Offenders could face up to three years in jail for whistling or booing when it is being played.

But it is the anti-sedition bill that has alarmed the vast majority of the Hong Kong people amid concerns that mainland “national security agencies” will be able to set up in the city.

“The Hong Kong people have been betrayed by China,” Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong, told The Times newspaper in London.

“What we are seeing is a new Chinese dictatorship. The British government should make it clear that what we are seeing is [the] complete destruction of the Joint Declaration,” he added, referring to the 1984 Sino-British accord signed by then Chinese Premier Zhao Ziyang and UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

In response, Beijing has denied breaching the agreement even though a similar bill tabled in the Hong Kong Legislative Council in 2003 was rejected. This time around the city will have no say in the matter. 

“It will uphold and improve the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ policy,’” Li Zhanshu, the chairman of the National People’s Congress, told delegates during the closing ceremony on Thursday.

“It is in line with the constitution and Hong Kong’s Basic Law and is in the interest of all Chinese people including Hong Kong people,” he said.

Still, the decision came just hours after the US threatened to revoke the city’s special status, which would blunt its economic edge and jeopardize its position as a global financial center.

“No reasonable person can assert today that Hong Kong maintains a high degree of autonomy from China, given facts on the ground,” US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said.

Already the fallout looks certain to have a profound effect on the former British territory.

Hua Po, an independent political commentator based in Beijing, felt China had been motivated by the fear of a younger Hong Kong generation that “does not agree with the political system” of the country’s ruling Communist Party.

“If they lose control over Hong Kong, the impact on the Chinese mainland will be huge,” Hua told the AFP news agency.

So much for the city’s social distancing status.