In the latest spate of protests, police in Hong Kong fired pepper pellets and made 300 arrests as thousands took to the streets to voice anger over national security legislation proposed by China which has raised international alarm over freedoms in the city.
- China’s military has expressed its strong support for the national security law, which claims to be targeting “terrorism”
- Australia has joined the US, UK and Canada in expressing concern over the national security law
- Along with a proposed law criminalising disrespect of China’s anthem, the legislation looks likely to renew large protests
Hong Kong’s leader has said the national security legislation proposed by China’s legislature will not threaten the semi-autonomous territory’s civil rights, despite widespread criticism of the move as an encroachment on freedom of speech and assembly.
Carrie Lam told a news conference on Tuesday there was “no need for us to worry”, without explaining how Hong Kong’s freedoms would be upheld.
“In the last 23 years, whenever people worried about Hong Kong’s freedom of speech and freedom of expression and protest, time and again, Hong Kong has proven that we uphold and preserve those values,” she said.
Chen Daoxiang, head of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Hong Kong Garrison, said the garrison “firmly supports” the national security law.
“This important decision will contribute to containing and punishing any attempt to sabotage the national unity or split the country, help deter all kinds of secessionist forces and foreign forces attempting to interfere in China’s internal affairs, and demonstrates our resolute will in safeguarding national sovereignty and territorial integrity,” he said, as quoted in the state-run Global Times.
While last year’s mass protests in Hong Kong were initially focused on proposed extradition laws, now pro-democracy advocates are fighting two pieces of controversial legislation.
With the national security legislation set to pass tomorrow and the anthem law due to be debated today, what exactly are the two new bills that have reignited Hong Kong’s protest movement?
Why do Hongkongers oppose the national security law?
China last week unveiled plans to introduce the legislation in Hong Kong which targets secession, subversion, terrorism and foreign interference — terms increasingly used by authorities to describe last year’s pro-democracy protests.
The national security law would bypass Hong Kong’s legislature and could allow mainland agencies to be set up in the city, sparking concerns Chinese agents could arbitrarily arrest people for pro-democracy activities.
The law was being revised to cover not just behaviour or acts that endanger national security, but also activities, local broadcaster RTHK and the South China Morning Post reported.
“Mainland lawyers who have handled national security cases in the past say this change could bring not just individuals, but also organisations under the scope of the law,” RTHK said.
Activists say the security laws could bring an end to the autonomy of China’s freest city, now guaranteed under a policy known as “one country, two systems”.
Human Rights Watch’s China researcher, Yaqiu Wang, said: “If the law is implemented, they will likely be prosecuted and detained and even go to jail for speaking critically of the Hong Kong Government or speaking critically of the Chinese Communist Party, for running for office, for going to the streets to protest as they have been doing in the past year.
Diplomats, trade bodies and investors have also raised alarm.
On Wednesday, Hong Kong riot police fired pepper pellets to disperse protesters in the heart of the global financial centre.
As tensions soared, riot police were deployed around Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, deterring protesters who had planned to gather there as a bill was due to be debated that would criminalise disrespect of the Chinese national anthem.
Elsewhere in the city, police rounded up groups of dozens of suspected protesters, making them sit on sidewalks before searching their belongings.
Police fired pepper pellets and made 300 arrests for violations ranging from possession of offensive weapons and tools for illegal use to dangerous driving.
The demonstrations came days after thousands poured onto the streets of Hong Kong to protest against the laws on Sunday.
Police fired tear gas and water cannon to disperse the crowd and arrested almost 200 people.
It was the city’s first major protest since last year’s widespread pro-democracy demonstrations.
What is the controversial national anthem bill?
Unlike the national security law, the anthem bill has been floated for several years. It is set for a second reading today and expected to be turned into law next month.
It requires the Chinese anthem March of the Volunteers to be taught in Hong Kong’s schools and sung by local organisations, and imposes jail terms of up to three years or fines of up to $9,700 for those who disrespect it.
Opponents say it represents another example of Beijing encroaching on Hong Kong’s sovereignty, while supporters say the city has a duty to ensure national symbols are treated respectfully.
Hong Kong has already outlawed the desecration of national emblems and flags.
Professor Willy Wo-Lap Lam, from the Chinese University of Hong Kong, told the ABC in 2018 that introducing the anthem law was only one of many attempts to assert Beijing’s version of “political correctness” outside mainland China.
Many argue the coronavirus pandemic is providing convenient cover for Beijing to crack down on the democracy movement in Hong Kong while the world’s attention is focused on battling COVID-19.
Despite the fact protests hadn’t occurred for months, Hong Kong authorities arrested 15 prominent pro-democracy figures in April, a move condemned by Western powers as “inconsistent” with China’s international commitments.
When asked if the coronavirus pandemic was being used to speed up an alleged crackdown on pro-democracy advocates, a Hong Kong Government spokesperson recently told the ABC “no-one is above it [the law] nor can anyone break it without facing consequences”.
How has the international community responded?
Australia issued a statement last week, along with the UK and Canada, stating it was”deeply concerned” at the proposed introduction of the national security law.
The statement, signed by Foreign Minister Marise Payne and her British and Canadian counterparts, pointed to Hong Kong’s Basic Law, which “sets out that Hong Kong will have a high degree of autonomy”.
“Making such a law on Hong Kong’s behalf without the direct participation of its people, legislature or judiciary would clearly undermine the principle of ‘one country, two systems’, under which Hong Kong is guaranteed a high degree of autonomy.”
US government officials have also said the legislation would end the Chinese-ruled city’s autonomy and would be bad for the economies of both Hong Kong and China.
President Donald Trump said the United States would announce a strong response to the law by the end of the week.
When asked at a news briefing if the response would include sanctions, he said: “No, it’s something you’re going to be hearing about … before the end of the week, very powerfully I think.”
US National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien said over the weekend the law could see China “basically take over Hong Kong” and warned sanctions would be imposed by the US if the law passed.
Mr Trump’s economic adviser, Larry Kudlow, said China was making “a big mistake” with the planned security legislation and pledged the US Government would pay expenses of American firms that wanted to shift operations from Hong Kong or China.
White House spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany told a briefing that Mr Trump found it “hard to see how Hong Kong can remain a financial hub if China takes over”.
What is likely to happen?
Authorities are likely to meet this week’s protests with heavy-handed tactics.
Hong Kong police issued a warning late on Tuesday that they would not tolerate disruptions to public order, after activists circulated calls online for protests on Wednesday.
Security forces have erected 2-metre-tall plastic barriers around Hong Kong’s Parliament, known as the LegCo, ahead of discussion of the two laws.
Ms Wang of Human Rights Watch said many Hongkongers feared they would need to leave the city.
“I don’t think people are optimistic that this could somehow be dropped [because of international attention] … the past year has proven … absolutely that Beijing is not backing down because of protest, because of pressure,” she said.