Beijing — China signalled it is hardening its stance on dissent in Taiwan and Hong Kong, where it faces growing frustration with the increasingly authoritarian government of President Xi Jinping.
In a report to the opening session of the annual National People’s Congress in Beijing, Premier Li Keqiang warned on Monday that China "will never tolerate any separatist schemes" in Taiwan, amid growing tension between the mainland and the self-ruled island.
The warning to the almost 3,000 members of the mostly ceremonial legislature followed the omission of language supporting the political autonomy of Hong Kong and Macau that had featured prominently in previous years.
The report said Beijing would continue to uphold its "one China" principle and promote "peaceful growth" relations with Taiwan under the 1992 consensus, which agrees that there is only one China without specifying whether Beijing or Taipei is its rightful representative.
Beijing would also "advance China’s peaceful reunification", Li said.
But, he said, it "will never tolerate any separatist schemes or activities for ‘Taiwan independence’".
China still sees Taiwan as part of its territory awaiting reunification and has cut off official communications with Taipei because President Tsai Ing-wen refuses to acknowledge the democratic island as part of "one China".
China voiced anger last week after the US Senate passed a Taiwan travel bill to encourage visits between Washington and Taipei "at all levels".
Washington cut formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan in 1979 in favour of Beijing. But it maintains trade relations with the island and sells it weapons, angering China.
‘One country, two systems’
The report also hinted at a hardening stance towards dissent in the semi-autonomous cities of Hong Kong and Macau, which Beijing rules under the principle of "One country, two systems".
Last year the section of the report on governing the former European colonies said they would be allowed "a high degree of autonomy", a statement in keeping with past years, but this year’s report omitted the phrase.
While this year’s report referred to the "One country, two systems" concept, it no longer said it would "steadfastly" apply the principle.
The change may seem minor but silence speaks volumes in a system where government documents are edited down to the last comma.
Hong Kong has been governed under a "one country, two systems" deal since 1997, when Britain handed the territory back to China. This allows residents rights unseen on the mainland, including freedom of speech and a partially directly elected legislature, as well as an independent judiciary.
But there is fear these freedoms are under threat from Beijing.
Tanya Chan, a pro-democracy legislator in the city, said the omission of the mention of Hong Kong people governing themselves was no mistake.
"I don’t think any omission is without purpose, especially when Hong Kong people are concerned about autonomy and the whole system," she told AFP.
"I worry about whether the Chinese government still respects these very important promises," Chan added, predicting more "serious and overt" intervention by Beijing.
Claudia Mo, also a pro-democracy legislator, said the "one country, two systems" deal was already dead. "They are just confirming it."