Hong Kong protests back after China tightens grip on city

Hong Kong protesters battled with riot police in busy downtown areas yesterday, showing their opposition toward China’s dramatic move to crack down on dissent in the biggest demonstration since the coronavirus swept through the city in January.
Police deployed a water cannon and fired tear gas in the Causeway Bay shopping area after hundreds of protesters gathered to oppose new national security legislation from China. Police warned the crowd they were taking part in an illegal gathering, and later said in a statement that “rioters threw umbrellas, water bottles and other objects at them.” At least 120 people were arrested, mostly for illegal assembly, while at least four members of the police media liaison team were injured, according to a post on the police Facebook page.
“We must stand up and fight, and let Beijing know that we will never surrender,” said Joshua Wong, one of the city’s most prominent activists, adding that the national security law was even more damaging than an extradition bill that spawned six months of often violent protests.
“We would describe it as the beginning of the end,” he said. “We don’t have enough time but we still need to continue the fight.”
More protests are planned for later in the week, when Hong Kong lawmakers are set to consider legislation that would punish anyone who disrespects China’s national anthem. In Beijing, the annual session of China’s legislature is expected to ram through a law to prevent and punish any acts of secession, subversion or terrorism in the city that threaten national security.
The biggest erosion of Hong Kong autonomy since China took control of the former British colony in 1997 has alarmed democracy advocates and foreign businesses who fear the city will lose its independence from the mainland. The Hang Seng Index of stocks plunged 5.6% on Friday, its biggest loss since July 2015.
The bill, among the most controversial items on the agenda of the National People’s Congress in years, drew strong rebukes from the U.S. government and rights groups. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo condemned the move, saying “the decision to bypass Hong Kong’s well-established legislative processes and ignore the will of the people of Hong Kong would be a death knell for the high degree of autonomy Beijing promised.”
The foreign ministers of the U.K., Australia and Canada released a joint statement saying they are “deeply concerned” about the legislation proposed by China.
“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,” they said.
A former pro-democracy lawmaker, Lee Cheuk-yan, said at a news briefing by opposition parties and activists that Chinese leader Xi Jinping “has torn away the whole pretense of ‘one country, two systems’” and that Beijing is “directly taking control.”
“They’re trying to ban every organization in Hong Kong who dares to speak out against the Communist Party,” he said, describing it as a challenge to global values such as freedom and liberty.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who spoke in Beijing yesterday during the National People’s Congress while protesters were defying police in Hong Kong, said the matter was an internal affair. He said it was necessary to stop separatists, independence advocates and external forces backing “violent and terrorist activities.”
“It will not affect the high degree of autonomy Hong Kong enjoys, nor will it affect the rights and freedoms of Hong Kong residents, nor will it affect the legitimate rights and interests of foreign investors in Hong Kong,” Wang said. “Everyone should have more confidence in the future of Hong Kong, and do not need to worry too much.”
City officials including Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam and Financial Secretary Paul Chan echoed those comments, trying to allay fears the moves will threaten confidence in the financial sector.
“I deeply believe that the national law to be enacted by the Standing Committee of the NPC will seek to practically and effectively prevent and curb acts and activities that seriously undermine national security, as well as sanction those who undermine national security by advocating “Hong Kong independence” and resorting to violence,” said Lam.
While the enactment of such legislation is required under Article 23 of the Basic Law, Beijing has decided not to try to ram it through the Hong Kong legislature, said Steve Tsang, director of the China Institute at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.
Instead, it has chosen what he called a “worse option” by proposing the National People’s Congress enact a national security law for the territory.
“For many in Hong Kong, the NPC enacting for Hong Kong will be tantamount to the effective end of the ‘one country, two systems’ model,” Tsang said. “I find it hard to believe this will not trigger either a massive peaceful and orderly demonstration or more vocal and aggressive protests or, indeed, most probably, a combination of both.”
Former Hong Kong leader C.Y. Leung defended the introduction of the legislation in an interview with Chinese state broadcaster CCTV. He warned that the pro-democracy opposition should not “underestimate the determination of the Chinese government to deal with the issues of Hong Kong.”
Meanwhile, local business groups including the American Chamber of Commerce have voiced concern about the “vaguely defined” law.
“An NPC announcement that it will bypass the Hong Kong legislative process to enact a Hong Kong security law may jeopardize future prospects for international business, particularly if a long list of details are not spelled out and clarified,” AmCham said on Friday.
Hong Kong was wracked by demonstrations in the second half of last year, sparked by the government’s proposal to introduce a law allowing extradition to jurisdictions including China. The coronavirus outbreak largely put an end to big protests as people stayed indoors and the government limited public gatherings.
“I don’t think the great majority of Hong Kong people have any interest whatsoever in subverting state power or the central government.”
The police used tear gas yesterday for the first time in about two months, since clashes in the suburban area of Yuen Long in late March. Officers urged members of the public to leave the scene and proceed to safe locations.
For all of Beijing’s attempts to reassure the world that Hong Kong will stay autonomous, those protesting yesterday like Terence Tong weren’t convinced.
The unrest could turn “more violent,” he said, paying little heed to the police as he joined the demonstrations on the street. “As I am a Hongkonger, I must take every step I can.” DB/Agencies

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