Hong Kong Protesters Arrested as Security Chief Warns of “Growing Terrorism”

The announcement at top political meetings in Beijing last week that the Chinese government would unilaterally impose national security legislation in Hong Kong sparked fear from pro-democratic lawmakers and activists that Beijing was hastening its running efforts to take full control over the territory. The law—which would ban “foreign interference,” secessionism, and subversion of state power—would be a direct blow to the protest movement which began a year ago in opposition to a draft extradition law. The draft was eventually withdrawn, but the movement continued with expanded demands, including for full democracy and limits to Beijing’s encroaching power over the city. The movement’s activity dwindled after pro-democracy groups saw encouraging gains in local elections late last year, then came to a standstill during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. More recently, some have suspected Hong Kong authorities of using related disease control measures to stymie public protests while they make progress towards political goals.

On Sunday and in defiance of social distancing rules, thousands of protesters gathered in Causeway Bay to demonstrate against Beijing’s move to bypass Hong Kong’s democratic process in violation of the “one country, two systems” principle. Police reacted with tear gas, pepper spray, water cannons, and nearly 200 arrests. At The Wall Street Journal, Neil Western and Joyu Wang report on the police crackdown that ensued, and cite protesters who in a state of desperation are sharpening their demands:

“I think this is the termination of one country, two systems,” one protester said Sunday, describing how police descended quickly on the early marchers, squeezing them from two sides and prompting many to flee. “Hong Kong is lost. The most important thing is to fight back against the Communist Party,” added the 25-year-old insurance-company employee.

Heavily armed police in full riot gear stayed out in force throughout the day as protesters chanted Hong Kong’s protest anthem. Police said they were forced to use tear gas because demonstrators had assaulted police officers, thrown objects at them and obstructed traffic.

Calls for Hong Kong to be free from Chinese rule rang out, while some protesters waved independence flags. Chinese leader Xi Jinping said in 2017 that Beijing wouldn’t tolerate demands for independence, calling it China’s red line.

“One country, two systems has gone now,” said Chris Hon, a 25-year-old engineer among the crowd Sunday. “The only option left to restore our own system is independence.” [Source]

More on the standoff between protesters and police from Al Jazeera, which also report a warning from Hong Kong’s security chief of the growing threat of terrorism as the local government rallied in support of Beijing’s proposal:

“Terrorism is growing in the city and activities which harm national security, such as ‘Hong Kong independence’, become more rampant,” Secretary for Security John Lee said in a statement.

“In just a few months, Hong Kong has changed from one of the safest cities in the world to a city shrouded in the shadow of violence,” he said, adding that national security laws were needed to safeguard the city’s prosperity and stability.

Tam Yiu-chung, Hong Kong’s sole delegate to China’s National People’s Congress Standing Committee, told the public broadcaster RTHK on Monday that said he did not expect any delay in the drafting of the national security law.

[…] Earlier, Ray Chan, a pro-democracy member of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, wrote on social media: “Call us terrorists, whatever you want, after the Wuhan Virus outbreak, China has no more credibility in the world.” [Source]

Reporting on the protests and arrests, the South China Morning Post’s Phila Siu and Chris Lau noted attempts by CCP leaders to ease fears about the rights implications of the security law, while being clear about their intent to implement it:

The protests erupted just hours after Chinese Vice-Premier Han Zheng, Beijing’s top leader in charge of Hong Kong, told local delegates to the national legislature that Beijing’s determination to push through the national security law should not be underestimated, and that mainland authorities would “implement it till the end”.

[…] At the ongoing National People’s Congress session in Beijing, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi sought to ease concerns about the new law, saying it would not damage the city’s autonomy or freedoms.

[…] The law would have “no impact on Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy, the rights and freedoms of Hong Kong residents, or the legitimate rights and interests of foreign investors in Hong Kong”, Wang said. “Instead of becoming unnecessarily worried, people should have more confidence in Hong Kong’s future. This will improve Hong Kong’s legal system and bring more stability, a stronger rule of law and a better business environment to Hong Kong.” [Source]

In her weekly press conference on Tuesday, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam similarly dismissed concerns over the law’s impact on freedoms and human rights, defending the draft legislation as a “responsible move” for Hong Kong’s law-abiding majority and scolding foreign diplomatic support of the protesters. From BBC news:

Hong Kong’s leader Carrie Lam has said other countries “have no place” interfering in the territory, as she robustly defended a controversial national security law planned by China.

[…] She denied that the law would curtail the rights of Hong Kongers.

These rights – set out in the Basic Law which is Hong Kong’s mini-constitution – have been in place since it was handed back to China in 1997 by the UK. The Basic Law guarantees certain freedoms to the territory, such as the right to protest, which do not exist on the mainland.

[…] She also spoke of the “positive response” from the public in the past few days, saying it “flies in the face of what those overseas politicians are saying”.

[…] Carrie Lam tried to assure the public that the law will only target “small groups of illegal criminals” – but could offer little when pressed for details. [Source]

As Lam claims a positive public response to Beijing’s draft law—an assertion thinly supported by a pro-government think-tank survey—online calls suggest another large turnout should be expected for a Wednesday demonstration against the second review of a national anthem law that would criminalize “insulting” China’s national anthem.

Police have warned of jail terms for any who cause “illegal disturbances” at the planned Wednesday protests. Booing the anthem is a practice some Hong Kong residents have adopted at public events in recent years, and the Hong Kong proposal is similar to a 2017 Chinese law.

On Twitter in an affirmative response to the NPC Observer’s detailed explanation of the situation, PRC law expert Jerome Cohen urges caution in accepting claims from the chief executive and other pro-establishment Hong Kong authorities that only a “small group” of people engaged in “terrorist” activity should be concerned by the law:

Lam’s censure of foreign “interference” comes as prominent Hong Kong pro-democracy activists lobby in support of diplomatic opposition to Chinese aggression in Hong Kong, and as the U.S. State Department criticizes Beijing’s actions and congress makes moves toward new sanctions on Chinese officials. A Global Times editorial attacked the U.S.’ “rallying Western officials and instigating Western media outlets to attack China’s National People’s Congress for its formulation of a national security law for Hong Kong” as a politically opportunist “nothingburger” that shouldn’t worry China, whose market appeal is stronger than American rhetoric. Meanwhile, the E.U. has joined the chorus of diplomatic calls for Beijing to respect Hong Kong’s autonomy.

At The New York Times, Steven Lee Myers’ suggests that the aggressive recent move by Beijing to demand national security legislation may be a sign that Xi Jinping is no longer concerned enough by international rebuke to exercise restraint:

Mr. Xi’s move against Hong Kong has nonviolent echoes of President Vladimir V. Putin’s forceful seizure of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, which was a violation of international law and of Russia’s previous diplomatic commitments. The annexation made Mr. Putin an international pariah for a while, but Russia still remains firmly in control of Crimea.

[…] While Mr. Xi is using legislation rather than military force in a territory already under Chinese rule, it is nonetheless a brash move by an autocratic leader willing to risk international condemnation to resist what he views as foreign encroachment on his country’s security.

“The Communist Party doesn’t care anymore about the reactions, because it’s about survival, the stability of the one-party system, avoiding the fate of the Soviet Union,” [professor at Hong Kong Baptist University Jean-Pierre] Cabestan said. “Hong Kong is being perceived more and more as a base of surveillance, as a factor in the destabilization of the Chinese state.”

[…] Victoria Hui, a political scientist at the University of Notre Dame and author of a book on the 2014 Hong Kong protests known as the Umbrella Movement, said the international community had often spoken out against China’s steady accretion of power over the territory but had exacted no real punishment. […] [Source]

Financial Times’ Tom Mitchell and Xinning Li cite anonymous pro-Beijing politicians who say the surprise unilateral move to force the legislation had been planned for months, and reflected “Beijing’s frustration with Hong Kong officials and its fear that election losses in September would further weaken their hand.”

More recently at the New York Times, Myers and Elaine Yu reported on new comments from the commander of the PLA garrison in Hong Kong, who also defended the bill and pledged to “safeguard the stability of Hong Kong.” The interview, aired on state television, was accompanied by footage of recent local military drills and scenes from when the PLA sent troops last summer at the height of the protests:

The garrison commander, Maj. Gen. Chen Daoxiang, addressed the situation in Hong Kong in an interview on the sidelines of the National People’s Congress in Beijing, where he serves as one of nearly 3,000 delegates to the annual legislative gathering.

General Chen said the new legislation would deter “all kinds of separatist forces and external intervention forces,” echoing the view of Mrs. Lam and others in China’s political leadership that the protests have international support intended to undermine the Communist Party’s rule over the city.

“Garrison officers and soldiers are determined, confident, and capable of safeguarding national sovereignty, security and development interests and maintaining the long-term prosperity and stability of Hong Kong,” General Chen said in an interview with China’s state television network, CCTV.

[…] “I have never heard of a garrison official in Hong Kong publicly commenting on Hong Kong’s affairs, even though of course the legislation is being done in Beijing,” said the pro-democracy lawmaker Tanya Chan, calling the move “shocking.” [Source]

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