Hong Kong’s future thrown into doubt with planned Beijing legislation

Hong Kong activists called on Friday for people to rise up against Beijing’s plans to impose national security legislation in the city, prompting alarm that the new laws could erode freedoms through “force and fear.”

A proposed march at noon in the central financial district did not materialize after online calls were heeded only by a handful of activists and as riot police made their presence visible on the streets.

But new calls have emerged for flash mobs at night across the territory. The Canadian Consulate there has warned of a “heightened possibility of demonstrations in Hong Kong this weekend,” advising Canadians to monitor local media for any developments.

“This is a great moment to reboot the protest,” said university student Kay, 24, who participated in last year’s mass scale and often violent anti-government and anti-Beijing protests, which this year entered a lull due to the coronavirus.

Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam said her government will “fully co-operate” with the Chinese parliament to complete the legislation, which she said will not affect rights, freedoms or judicial independence.

Police officers stop members of the Democratic Party from moving toward the Chinese central government’s liaison office during a protest in Hong Kong on Friday. Hong Kong’s pro-democracy lawmakers have sharply criticized China’s move to take over long-stalled efforts to enact national security legislation in the semi-autonomous territory. (Kin Cheung/The Associated Press)

The security law plan hit financial markets on Friday, due to concerns the semiautonomous city’s status as a global financial hub was at risk. Hong Kong stocks were sold off as China’s parliament sat to discuss the new law.

Hong Kong’s Hang Seng index fell 5.6 per cent to a seven-week low.

Foreign diplomats are urgently seeking more details, fearing the statement could formalize and expand the presence of mainland security and intelligence services in Hong Kong. Currently they can take no enforcement action in the city.

More U.S. friction expected

The proposed legislation could heighten tensions between Beijing and Washington, whose relationship is already frayed by trade disputes and reciprocal accusations over the pandemic.

U.S. President Donald Trump warned Washington would react “very strongly” if Beijing went ahead with the security law.

U.S. President Donald Trump is shown with China’s President Xi Jinping in June 2019 at the G20 leaders summit in Osaka, Japan. Trump has repeatedly praised Xi in the past, but the coronavirus pandemic and the planned Hong Kong legislation could further damage relations between the superpowers. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

There was also bipartisan condemnation in Washington. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, called the development “deeply alarming.”

“Attempting to circumvent the [Hong Kong] legislature shows a complete disrespect for the rule of law,” Pelosi said on Twitter.

Republican Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri said he would introduce a resolution in the chamber on Friday, “condemning this attempted crackdown and [to] call on all free nations to stand with Hong Kong.”

In Ottawa, Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne told CBC’s Power & Politics that Canada will make sure its “voice is heard” when it hears more details from Beijing.

What I can say is that we’ve been consistent since Day 1 in protecting the high level of autonomy that people in Hong Kong have been enjoying — freedom of expression, freedom of the press,” said Champagne. “We have seen recent events that have been of concern for Canada and Canadians, so we will certainly watch that very closely.”

Laws could characterize protest as subversion, or terrorism

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 Macao, its other semi-autonomous city.

The proposed 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 seen by Reuters.

Hong Kong activist Joshua Wong comments:

The document said the laws 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.”

“When needed, relevant national security organs of the Central People’s Government will set up agencies” in Hong Kong to safeguard national security, the draft said.

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.

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam, right, attends the opening session of China’s National People’s Congress (NPC) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Friday. Lam said she would fully co-operate with the planned Beijing legislation. (Ng Han Guan/The Associated Press)

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.

Assets, talent could leave

Hong Kong competes fiercely with Singapore to be considered Asia’s premier financial centre. Global private banks including Credit Suisse and UBS, as well as Asian wealth managers, have their regional operations in the two hubs.

Rule of law is widely seen as a major factor for global financial institutions that make the former British colony their regional home but the legislation could lead to the flight of capital and executives from the Asian financial hub, bankers and headhunters said on Friday.

“We have had instances where clients were considering establishing a presence in Hong Kong … but due to the pro-democracy protests in 2019, they decided to set up a presence in Singapore instead,” said Rahul Sen, London-based partner for wealth management headhunting and consulting firm Boyden.

The American Chamber of Commerce (AmCham) in Hong Kong urged Beijing to spell out more details, saying in a statement the enactment of the law could “jeopardize future prospects” for international business.

Read more at CBC.ca