Hong Kong Activists Urge Protests Against New China Security Law

(Bloomberg) -- Democracy advocates called for protests against sweeping national security legislation China introduced Friday, as authorities in Beijing vowed to end what they called a “defenseless” posture due to “those trying to sow trouble.”

Legislation slated for passage in the National People’s Congress in Beijing by next week would help complete Hong Kong’s obligation to enact laws curbing acts of treason, secession, sedition and subversion, NPC Vice Chairman Wang Chen told lawmakers Friday. The measure would also seek to counter terrorism and foreign interference in Hong Kong.

The announcement on national security legislation prompted calls for protests and a spike in Hong Kong residents downloading VPN software that helps mask internet usage. U.S. President Donald Trump, when asked about China’s moves, pledged he would respond “very strongly.”

Pro-democracy lawmakers marched to the Chinese government’s Liaison Office in Hong Kong to express opposition to the measure, which was expected to pass the rubber-stamp parliament by May 28. Activists urged additional protests against Beijing-backed legislation, including a bill that would criminalize disrespecting China’s national anthem, on Sunday and Wednesday.

Hong Kong Activists Urge Protests Against New China Security Law

Civil Human Rights Front convener Jimmy Sham, whose group organized historic marches last year that brought out hundreds of thousands of protesters, told reporters he expected to call another huge rally. He didn’t disclose further details.

The Hong Kong government would be required to implement the legislation “as soon as possible,” Wang said. The bill would allow for the establishment of entities to enforce its provisions. It would also affirm Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s obligation to administer national security education in the special administrative region and require her to submit regular reports.

Chinese authorities are seeking to rein in dissent that fueled months of massive and often violent street demonstrations that paralyzed the former British colony for months last year. Although the protests began in opposition to now-withdrawn legislation that would’ve allowed extraditions to the mainland, they soon morphed into broader criticism of Beijing’s rule and demands for direct elections of the city’s leader.

“The increasingly notable national security risks in the HKSAR have become a prominent problem,” Xinhua said Friday. “Law-based and forceful measures must be taken to prevent, stop and punish such activities.”

Hong Kong’s stocks headed for their worst loss since the global financial crisis Friday. The MSCI Hong Kong Index fell as much as 6.7%, which would be its biggest slump on a closing basis since October 2008.

“The provocation of last year’s protests has proved too much and Beijing wants to reassert its authority in Hong Kong forcefully and decisively,” said Antony Dapiran, a Hong Kong-based lawyer and author of “City on Fire: The Fight for Hong Kong.” “This is likely to become another flash point in the ongoing conflict between the U.S. and China, and in combination with other developments, may help accelerate a worsening of the bilateral relationship.”

But Dapiran added: “I do not think any actions from the U.S. will change the path China is on in relation to governing Hong Kong.”

Earlier, Premier Li Keqiang pledged to “establish sound legal systems and enforcement mechanisms for safeguarding national security” in Hong Kong and in the neighboring region of Macau. Lam, who was appointed by Beijing, vowed to cooperate, saying Hong Kong was facing an “increasingly serious” national security situation and needed the measures to ensure the city’s prosperity and stability.

Although Hong Kong is constitutionally required to pass national security laws by Article 23 of the Basic Law, the city’s mini-constitution, successive governments have failed to pass them -- with one effort in 2003 resulting in widespread street demonstrations. This new legal strategy could potentially allow authorities to skip the local legislative process, although the mechanics of how that would work remained unclear.

Hong Kong Activists Urge Protests Against New China Security Law

The move sets up a potential election-year showdown with Trump, who has come under pressure in Washington to reconsider the special trading status before the city’s return to Chinese rule under a promise to maintain its liberal financial and political structure. On Thursday, Trump warned that the U.S. would respond to any move to curtail protests and democratic movements in Hong Kong.

Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Zhao Lijian said Friday that no country had the right to interfere in Hong Kong.

The ministry’s Hong Kong branch issued a separate statement urging the international community to take a “fair and objective” view of the legislation. The agency said in a statement that the provisions would target “very few” people and wouldn’t affect various rights of Hong Kong residents, such as freedom of assembly, speech and the press.

Hong Kong Activists Urge Protests Against New China Security Law

The legislation would still require several procedural steps including approval by the NPC’s decision-making Standing Committee, which could come as early as next month, the South China Morning Post reported. The move comes before citywide elections in September in which opposition members hoped to gain an unprecedented majority of the Legislative Council.

Danny Gittings, an academic who wrote the “Introduction to the Hong Kong Basic Law,” said a chief executive could only implement such laws by proclamation if the wording is identical to the Chinese national law. The anthem measure, which was similarly imposed in 2017, still hasn’t been passed by the Legislative Council.

“Even if it’s not a law enforceable in Hong Kong, it could still have a strong symbolic impact,” Gittings said.

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