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China's plans for security agencies in Hong Kong will "silence city", activists say

Reuters | Beijing | Updated: 22-05-2020 18:40 IST | Created: 22-05-2020 18:07 IST
China's plans for security agencies in Hong Kong will "silence city", activists say
Representative Image Image Credit: Flickr

A Chinese proposal to impose national security laws on Hong Kong could see mainland intelligence agencies set up bases there, raising fears of direct law enforcement and what U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called a "death knell" for the city's autonomy.

Communist Party rulers in Beijing unveiled details on Friday, a day after proposing the legislation that critics see as a turning point for China's most free-wheeling city. Pro-democracy activists and politicians in the former British colony have for years opposed such legislation, arguing it could erode its autonomy, guaranteed under the "one country, two systems" agreement under which Britain returned Hong Kong to China in 1997.

"Beijing is attempting to silence Hong Kongers' critical voices with force and fear," activist Joshua Wong, one of the leaders of pro-democracy street protests in 2014, tweeted. Some pro-democracy lawmakers denounced the plans as "the end of Hong Kong".

Hong Kong activists called for people to rise up against the proposal, aimed at tackling secession, subversion, terrorism, and foreign interference, that has sent shockwaves across the business and diplomatic communities. Foreign diplomats fear establishing new Beijing agencies in Hong Kong could give mainland security and intelligence officers enforcement powers that could potentially put rights and freedoms, protected in the handover agreement, at risk.

Calls have emerged for flash mobs at night across the territory and democracy activists plan to meet the press to announce "street action". "This is a great moment to reboot the protest," said university student Kay, 24, who took part in last year's often violent anti-government and anti-Beijing protests that entered a lull this year due to the coronavirus.

The security law plan hit financial markets on concerns the city's status as a financial hub is at risk. Hong Kong's Hang Seng index closed down 5.6%, its largest daily percentage drop since July 2015. Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam said her government will "fully cooperate" with the Chinese parliament to safeguard national security, which she said would not affect rights, freedoms, or judicial independence.

The proposals could heighten tensions between Beijing and Washington, whose relationship is already frayed by trade disputes and reciprocal accusations over the handling of the pandemic. U.S. President Donald Trump warned Washington would react "very strongly" if Beijing went ahead with the security law.

Pompeo said the "disastrous proposal" would be the "death knell" for Hong Kong's autonomy and that the United States stood with the people of Hong Kong. "It is starting to look like a U.S.-China summer of discontent in the making," said Stephen Innes, chief global market strategist at AxiCorp.

Innes said the new law could reignite the 2019 anti-China protests, the biggest crisis the city has faced since 1997.

DRAFT PROPOSAL

In his annual report to parliament, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said China would establish a "sound" legal system and enforcement mechanisms to ensure national security in Hong Kong and Macau, a former Portuguese colony that returned to China in 1999. The proposed move will see China's parliament endorse, then annex the laws into Hong Kong's mini-constitution, the Basic Law, without any local legislative scrutiny, according to a draft seen by Reuters.

The document said the laws will safeguard the central government's "overall jurisdiction" as well as Hong Kong's "high autonomy" given Hong Kong's "increasingly notable national security risks". "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.

Foreign diplomats fear this 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. Hong Kong's judiciary, along with the government and legislature, must "effectively prevent, stop and punish acts endangering national security", it states. The reference to Hong Kong's staunchly independent legal system has rattled some Hong Kong lawyers.

A previous attempt to adopt similar legislation in 2003 was met with a protest that drew around half a million people on to the streets and was eventually shelved. "It is essentially declaring directly that 'one country, two systems' is null and a failure," said Eric Cheung, principal lecturer at Hong Kong University's department of law, of the legislation.

Beijing said the legislation would strengthen the "two systems" formula and was in Hong Kong's interest. Lam said Beijing's intention was to tackle illegal activities that had damaged national security. Beijing's move is expected to lead to the flight of capital and talent, bankers and headhunters said.

"In some cases where clients had a bit of inertia and hoped things that happened last year will just go away, they will now step on the gas to reduce their wealth concentration risk here," said a senior banker at a European private bank. The U.S. State Department warned a high degree of autonomy and respect for human rights were key to preserving the territory's special status in U.S. law, which has helped it maintain its position as a world financial center.


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