BEIJING — China's government passed the first hurdle of enacting a draft security law for Hong Kong on Thursday, legislation that critics warn would erode human rights protections and the territory's unique status.
The move has prompted widespread concern about Beijing's increasing influence on the semi-autonomous region.
On Wednesday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned that the law would mean that Hong Kong no longer qualifies for its special status under United States law.
That might open the door for the U.S. to end or at least alter the special economic and trading relationship that it currently has with Hong Kong. President Donald Trump said Wednesday ahead of the vote that he will issue a response before the end of the week.
Hong Kong's pro-democracy activists, who in recent days have taken to the streets in protest, spoke out against the move.
"Today's decision is a direct assault on the will" of Hong Kongers, Joshua Wong, an activist who rose to prominence during widespread demonstrations in 2014, said on Twitter. He warned the legislation "might kill Hong Kong's democratic movements."
Its passage was no surprise and hours beforehand, Pompeo tweeted Wednesday that "the United States stands with the people of Hong Kong."
A joint statement by the State Department, along with the foreign ministries of Canada, the United Kingdom and Australia, said that China's passing of the draft law was "in direct conflict with its international obligations."
They called on China to rethink the legislation, saying it raises the prospect that Hong Kongers might be prosecuted "for political crimes, and undermines existing commitments to protect the rights of Hong Kong people."
China's annual National People's Congress approved the framework of the law by 2,878 votes to 1. It will now go to senior party officials in the Standing Committee of the NPC to be fleshed out.
It is set to tackle issues such as secession, subversion, terrorism and foreign interference, and comes after a year of anti-government protests that at times brought Hong Kong to a standstill.
Legal experts say it is unclear whether once passed in Beijing, the law will also need to be approved or implemented by Hong Kong's Legislature.
Either way it represents a major turning point in China's handling of the territory.
Some analysts see it as China losing patience with Hong Kong's failure to adopt national security legislation on its own after anti-government protests swept the city last year.
Hong Kong, once a British colony, was handed back to China in 1997 on the agreement that it would retain for at least 50 years extra freedoms distinct from those of mainland China.
This was called "one country, two systems," and stated that Hong Kong would keep its own, more liberal systems of government, the judiciary and economy.
Tara Joseph, president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong, described Beijing's draft law as marking "the end of an era" for the region.
"Hong Kong, in many ways, has become the new Berlin: the new meeting point of a big argument of big disagreement between two major powers, China and the United States," she said. "We can expect a lot of friction here as a result."
Backed by the U.S. and other Western governments, activists are worried that Beijing is now trying to snuff out the freedoms that it promised decades ago.
"Hong Kong is not as free as it was before," said one demonstrator, part of a group of dozens of people who had gathered in downtown Hong Kong on Thursday. Asking to be identified as Wong for fear of retaliation, he said that Hong Kong's government was now just "the puppet of Beijing" and that it was "harming our basic values, harming our freedom, harming our democracy."
Another demonstrator, Simon Ho, an information technology worker, said that it was "too late to change, but we still need to express to the government that we really do not like this law."
According to Bonnie Glaser, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank, the passage of the draft law shows that the Chinese Communist Party has weighed-up the risks and considered them acceptable to achieve their goals.
"It was potentially too embarrassing to Xi Jinping to see surrounding the elections in September, another round of very violent protests that they just couldn't control," Glaser said, referring to the Chinese president. She said the coronavirus was an "accelerant" emboldening China's foreign policy.
Janis Mackey Frayer reported from Beijing; Justin Solomon from Hong Kong; and Alexander Smith and Adela Suliman reported from London. Reuters contributed to this report.