Police and Protesters Clash in Hong Kong, U.S. Declares City No Longer Autonomous From China

Following the arrest of nearly 200 people protesting against Beijing’s move to unilaterally impose national security legislation in Hong Kong last weekend, police on Wednesday arrested over 360 who were rallying against a law that would outlaw “insulting” the PRC national anthem. After last weekend’s protest and arrests, police warned of further arrests and jail terms for any “illegal disturbances” at Wednesday’s planned demonstration, which like the previous round of protest occurred despite recently extended public health restrictions limiting public gatherings. At The Guardian, Helen Davidson and Verna Yu report on Wednesday’s standoff between pro-democracy protesters and armed police in Hong Kong:

Earlier in the day, police in riot gear stopped and searched mainly young people outside Hong Kong’s MTR railway stations during morning rush hour and lined walkways as commuters shuffled past, prompting accusations on social media that the city had become “a police state”.

Roads around the Legislative Council building (LegCo) were blocked off as lawmakers held a debate on the anthem law.

[…] Police accused protesters of setting fire to debris and throwing objects at officers. “Police had no other option and needed to employ minimal force, including pepper balls to prevent the relevant illegal and violent behaviour,” the force said.

The crowds remained, swearing at police and chanting: “Hong Kong independence, it’s the only way.”

“I’ve come for something I care deeply about – ultimately it’s freedom,” said a 40-year-old lawyer who wished to remain anonymous, citing the national security laws, Beijing encroachment, and a recent report clearing police of wrongdoing. “If we keep quiet, they can get away with it. I don’t think we can change things but need to make sure our voices are heard.” [Source]

Pro-democracy rallies over the last two weeks mark the resurgence of last year’s stalled protest movement, which represented the culmination of years of mounting anxieties over Beijing’s expanding influence in the region. Last year’s movement began in opposition to a draft extradition law that many in Hong Kong feared would allow mainland authorities to crack down on political dissent. The draft was eventually withdrawn, but the movement continued with expanded demands, including for full democracy and limits to Beijing’s encroaching power. Stalled during the city’s battle with the coronavirus pandemic, the movement showed signs of reemerging earlier this month when small protests broke out in shopping districts and led to over 200 arrests. After Beijing last week made public the draft resolution that it would use to require Hong Kong to implement national security legislation—and effectively overturn the “one country, two systems” principle—calls for independence began being heard at demonstrations. As Hong Kong’s establishment rallies for public support of the national security law and counters criticism over its potential effects on the region’s freedom, authorities have promised it would only affect a “small group of illegal criminals,” and have warned of mounting “terrorism.”

More from CNN’s James Griffiths on the chaotic scenes across Hong Kong on Wednesday:

Riot police detained and arrested dozens of people in the busy shopping area of Causeway Bay and Central, the city’s main global business hub, during scattered and seemingly spontaneous protests over the law, which critics say threatens basic political freedoms and civil liberties.

Multiple protesters could be seen wrestled to the ground by police, and pepper spray and pellets were fired into crowds gathered in densely populated areas. Arrests were also made in Mong Kok, in Kowloon, police said.

“It’s like a de facto curfew now,” former lawmaker and pro-democracy activist Nathan Law told Hong Kong public broadcaster RTHK in the wake of the arrests. “I think the government has to understand why people are really angry,” he added.

[…] Police said people “occupied the nearby roads and blocked traffic,” disrupting “social peace.” They also released a photo showing dozens of people seated inside a police kettle, most of whom appear to be young and wearing regular clothes, rather than the heavy protest gear seen in previous unrest.

Compared to last year, when lunchtime protests were a semi-regular sight ahead of the coronavirus outbreak, often involving white collar business workers, police demonstrated far less tolerance for any obstruction of roads or other minor disruption. Police were seen detaining people for shouting protest slogans and displaying banners, and one police liaison officer told a crowd in Central through a loudspeaker: “After eating lunch, go back to your normal life and don’t stand here anymore.” [Source]

Hong Kong’s embattled Chief Executive Carrie Lam on Monday censured foreign “interference” amid mounting diplomatic pressure on Beijing to respect Hong Kong’s autonomy. Since then, the E.U. has joined in the call, and Germany stated that it expects Beijuing to respect the region’s rule of law and that Hong Kong should retain a “high degree of autonomy.” Currently engaged in several diplomatic spats with Beijing—including over trade and responsibility for the coronavirus pandemic—the U.S. State Department announced that it no longer considers Hong Kong to be autonomous:

The AFP reports on Pompeo’s full statement:

Hours before Beijing will hold a key vote on a controversial new security law on Hong Kong, Pompeo sent a notice to Congress that China was not living up to obligations from before it regained control of the territory from Britain in 1997.

“I certified to Congress today that Hong Kong does not continue to warrant treatment under United States laws in the same manner as US laws were applied to Hong Kong before July 1997,” Pompeo said in a statement.

“No reasonable person can assert today that Hong Kong maintains a high degree of autonomy from China, given facts on the ground.”

[…] “While the United States once hoped that free and prosperous Hong Kong would provide a model for authoritarian China, it is now clear that China is modeling Hong Kong after itself,” Pompeo said. [Source]

At the South China Morning Post, Mark Magnier reports on the implications of Secretary Pompeo’s certification, which could allow for new sanctions, and could jeopardize Hong Kong’s preferential trade relationship with Washington, under a bill passed by U.S. congress last year:

[…] Under the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act passed by the US Congress in November, the administration must decide annually whether governance of Hong Kong is suitably distinct from China.

Options available to the administration – which may in part depend on Beijing’s reaction, analysts said – include higher trade tariffs, tougher investment rules, asset freezes and more onerous visa rules.

The move sent shock waves through China and Hong Kong policy circles.

[…] “I fully expect the US to proceed with sanctions on individuals and entities deemed to be undermining Hong Kong’s autonomy,” [Bonnie Glaser from the Centre for Strategic and International Studies] added. “Secondary sanctions are possible on banks that do business with entities found in violation of law guaranteeing Hong Kong’s autonomy.”

Analysts noted a long-standing dilemma faced by successive US administrations: if Washington imposes sanctions on Hong Kong, it risks hurting residents of the city at least as much as it penalises Beijing. […] [Source]

On Twitter, prominent pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong explained the likely global economic impact of both the imposition of a national security law and the termination of Hong Kong’s special trade status, to urge international leaders to oppose the former and reconsider the latter:

At Bloomberg, Iain Marlow and Daniel Flatley take a deeper look at the global implications of Hong Kong losing its special status:

2. What would losing it mean for Hong Kong?

An estimated $38 billion in trade between Hong Kong and the U.S. could be jeopardized. “Longer term, people might have a second thought about raising money or doing business in Hong Kong,” said Kevin Lai, chief economist for Asia excluding Japan at Daiwa Capital Markets. It would be “the nuclear option” and “the beginning of the death of Hong Kong as we know it,” said Steve Tsang, director of the University of London’s SOAS China Institute.

3. What about for the U.S.?

It has its own reasons for not rocking the boat too much. Hong Kong, the only semi-democratic jurisdiction under Chinese rule, offers U.S. companies a relatively safe way to access the Chinese market and employs a U.S. dollar peg, linking it with the American financial system. According to the Congressional Research Service, the largest U.S. trade surplus in 2018 was with Hong Kong — $31.1 billion. Some 290 U.S. companies had regional headquarters in the city that year and another 434 had regional offices, it said. Hong Kong’s first justice minister after the handover to China in 1997, Elsie Leung, told the South China Morning Post in May that any damage would be mutual: “We are not just getting the benefits – it’s a free-trade arrangement which is good for both sides.”

4. And more broadly?

Any sanctions or move to rescind the special status would further strain the relationship between the U.S. and China, already under pressure from the coronavirus pandemic, the , an ongoing trade war and other issues. In addition to the annual review of Hong Kong’s trading status, the new law requires the president to freeze U.S.-based assets of, and deny entry to the U.S. by, any individuals found responsible for abducting and torturing human rights activists in Hong Kong. Such sanctions could come sooner than a suspension of the trading status, and would obviously complicate things further. […] [Source]

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