Hong Kong activists call for protest march against new security laws

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong activists called for a protest march on Friday against Beijing’s plans to impose national security legislation in the city, prompting alarm that the new laws could erode its freedoms through “force and fear”.

“We kind of expected China to do something to suppress us. This step is too much,” said Leung, 21, a criminology student in Hong Kong.

The move hit financial markets, due to concerns the semiautonomous city’s status as a global financial hub was at risk, with Hong Kong stocks selling off as China’s parliament sat on Friday to discuss the new law.

While it was unclear whether the unauthorised march, proposed to start at noon near the central financial district and end at China’s Liaison Office, will materialise, it was a sign that Hong Kong could soon plunge into renewed unrest.

The legislation could be a historical turning point for Hong Kong and heighten geopolitical tensions between Beijing and Washington, whose relationship is already weakened by trade disputes and reciprocal accusations over the coronavirus pandemic.

“It is starting to look like a U.S.-China summer of discontent in the making,” said Stephen Innes, chief global market strategist at AxiCorp.

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Innes said the new law could potentially reignite the pro-democracy demonstrations of 2019, the biggest crisis the former British colony has faced since it returned to Chinese rule in 1997.

Hong Kong stocks fell 3.2%, leading falls in Asia and the Hong Kong dollar dropped slightly against the U.S. greenback.

Speaking on Friday in his annual report to the Chinese parliament, Premier Li Keqiang said China will establish a “sound” legal system and enforcement mechanisms to ensure national security in Hong Kong and Macau, its other semi-autonomous city.

China’s proposed new legislation for Hong Kong requires the territory to quickly finish enacting national security regulations under its mini-constitution, the Basic law, according to a draft of the legislation seen by Reuters.

The document said the law will tackle secession, subversion and terrorism activities, as well as foreign interference. It says it will safeguard the central government’s “overall jurisdiction” as well as Hong Kong’s “high autonomy”.

A previous attempt to adopt similar legislation in 2003 was met with a protest that drew around half a million people onto the streets and was eventually shelved.

Pro-democracy activists and politicians have for years opposed the idea of national security laws, arguing they could erode the city’s high degree of autonomy, guaranteed under the “one country, two systems” handover agreement, which China says it is undermined by protesters.

“It is essentially declaring directly that ‘one country two systems’ is null and a failure,” said Eric Cheung, principal lecturer at Hong Kong University’s department of law.

“THE END OF HONG KONG”

Local pro-democracy lawmakers denounced the plans on Thursday night as “the end of Hong Kong”.

“Beijing is attempting to silence Hong Kongers’ critical voices with force and fear,” pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong tweeted. “Deep down protesters know, we insist not because we are strong, but because we have no other choice.”

The introduction of Hong Kong security laws on the agenda of the Chinese parliament, which begins its annual session on Friday after a months-long delay due to the coronavirus, drew a warning from U.S. President Donald Trump that Washington would react “very strongly”.

The U.S. State Department also warned China, saying a high-degree of autonomy and respect for human rights were key to preserving the territory’s special status in U.S. law, which has helped it maintain its position as a world financial centre.

Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council urged Beijing on Friday not to lead Hong Kong into “bigger turmoil” due to wrong policy decisions.

An editorial in the state-backed China Daily newspaper late on Thursday said the proposed legislation will “better safeguard Hong Kong’s development”.

“The overreaction of those rioters and their foreign backers, who see such legislation as a thorn in their side, only testifies to the pertinence of the decision and the urgent need for such legislation,” it said.

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Sanchez seeks to extend Spain coronavirus state of emergency

Prime minister plans last extension of emergency decree as COVID-19 daily death toll reached a near eight-week low.

Spain’s government will seek to extend its coronavirus state of emergency for the last time until late June, Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez has said, as the country’s daily death toll reached a near eight-week low.

“The Spanish government will ask parliament to approve a new extension of the state of emergency … it would be the last state of emergency and would continue until the end of the rollback,” Sanchez said in a televised address on Saturday.

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“For that reason … instead of being a 15-day [extension], it will be for about a month,” he added.

The lockdown was first declared on March 14 to slow the spread of the virus in Spain.

Officials say while the outbreak has been brought largely under control, restrictions must stay in place longer as the lockdown is gradually phased out.

The country’s COVID-19 death toll rose by 102 to 27,563 on Saturday, the lowest 24-hour increase since March 18. Confirmed coronavirus cases climbed to 230,698 from 230,183, the health ministry said.

Sanchez said if Spain had followed a “herd immunity” strategy – allowing the virus to freely circulate to let the population develop mass immunity – deaths and infections could have been vastly higher.
     
“If we had taken this path, the number of people infected could have been more than 30 million. And it could have cost the lives of around 300,000 people,” he said.
     
Renewed four times, the state of emergency has let the government impose some of the world’s tightest restrictions on Spain’s nearly 47 million population, although it has since begun a cautious rollback.

Since May 11, half of Spain’s population has experienced an easing of the restrictions, with cafe terraces reopening and people allowed to meet in groups of up to 10 people.

And by Monday, three-quarters of the population will be able to enjoy such freedoms although these measures have not yet been rolled out in the worst-hit areas such as the Madrid region and Barcelona.

The government’s decision to keep Madrid in the so-called “preparatory phase zero” has provoked a backlash from the regional authorities who have accused the central government of playing politics and even threatened to take legal action.

Despite calls to restart the economy, with particular emphasis on tourism, which accounts for 12 percent of Spain’s GDP, Sanchez defended the government’s cautious approach.

“If we go too fast, and we make a wrong move, we could risk jeopardising the international credibility that has taken us decades to build up,” he said.

And Sanchez did not rule out a further appeal to the eurozone’s rescue fund, the European Stability Mechanism (ESM).

“If the Spanish government needs to use this, it will do so, ” he said.

The last time Sanchez’s government sought to extend the measure, he faced a wave of opposition from his right-wing opponents who pledged to block the move, although it was ultimately passed.

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