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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U.S. Senate Republican leader threatens 'reexamining' U.S.-China relationship

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell on Thursday threatened to reexamine the U.S.-Chinese relationship if Beijing pursues a “further crackdown” on Hong Kong, after China was set to impose new national security legislation on the former British colony.

“A further crackdown from Beijing will only intensify the Senate’s interest in reexamining the U.S.-China relationship,” McConnell said in a statement.

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Hong Kong legislature to push ahead with China anthem bill after chaotic scuffles

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong’s legislature plunged into chaotic scuffles for a second time this month, as pro-Beijing lawmakers on Monday took control of a key committee, paving the way for a debate on a bill that would criminalise abuse of China’s national anthem.

Pro-democracy legislators charged at security guards surrounding pro-establishment lawmaker Chan Kin-Por, who had taken the chairman’s seat in the meeting against procedural objections by the opposition.

Guards hauled several legislators out of the chamber, some kicking and shouting. Some tried leaping over the guards from benchtops to take back the chairman’s seat only to be forced back. The Democrats chanted “foul play” and held a placard reading “CCP (China Communist Party) tramples HK legislature.”

Opposition lawmaker Ted Hui shouted at Chan that the meeting was “illegal.” Even as the protests continued, Chan called a vote for a chairperson of the committee that was won by pro-Beijing lawmaker Starry Lee.

Lee’s camp condemned the violence and pledged to push ahead with the anthem bill.

“It’s painful to watch and it’s saddening to see a legislative assembly degenerate into this level of behaviour,” pro-Beijing lawmaker Martin Liao said.

Beijing has accused the former British colony’s pro-democracy lawmakers of “malicious” filibustering to prevent some proposed bills from going to a final vote, effectively paralysing the legislature.

It was the second time in 10 days that have legislators pushed and shoved each other over the procedures of electing a chairperson.

Last May, scuffles broke out in the legislature over a proposed extradition bill that if passed could have seen people stand trial in courts in mainland China. The bill sparked often-violent protests in the Hong Kong and was later scrapped.

“They can take away the rules of procedures today but I am sure the Hong Kong people won’t forget today,” said Democratic lawmaker Dennis Kwok.

ONLINE CALLS FOR PROTESTS

The house committee’s role is to scrutinise bills before a second reading in the legislative council and has built up a backlog after failing to elect a chairperson since late last year. The backlog includes the China national anthem bill, which is expected to be given a second reading on May 27 despite the procedural chaos.

Protesters have been calling on social media for city-wide demonstrations on that day.

Liao acknowledged the bill could spark social unrest.

“We cannot shun our legislative duty because we think there’s a risk,” he said.

Social distancing amid the pandemic has largely put a brake on protests since January, but demonstrations are expected to resume later this year with the outbreak coming under control.

The arrest of 15 activists in April, including veteran politicians, a publishing tycoon and senior barristers, thrust the protest movement back into the spotlight and drew condemnation from Washington and international rights groups.

China’s Hong Kong affairs office warned this month that the city would never be calm unless “black-clad violent protesters” were all removed, describing them as a “political virus” that seeks independence from Beijing.

Beijing blames foreign forces for fomenting unrest and says protesters are undermining the rule of law in Hong Kong.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Sunday he believed China had threatened to interfere with the work of U.S. journalists in Hong Kong, and warned Beijing that any decision impinging on Hong Kong’s autonomy could affect the U.S. assessment of Hong Kong’s status.

Britain returned Hong Kong to China in 1997, and the territory was promised a “high degree of autonomy” for 50 years.

The “one country, two systems” deal formed the basis of the territory’s special status under U.S. law, which has helped it thrive as a world financial centre.

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