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.
- U.S. senators seek to sanction Chinese officials over Hong Kong
- China law requires Hong Kong to enact national security rules as soon as possible
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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