Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam told reporters at a press briefing Tuesday that alarm over a proposed “national security” bill in Beijing, intended to silence the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement, was overblown, and that the city continues to be a free society, “for the time being.”
Lam repeatedly conditioned her assurances that the civil liberties Hong Kong residents grew accustomed to over the decades under British rule and, later, alleged autonomy under China during the press conference. The head of the regional government repeatedly dismissed concerns that Chinese Communist Party restrictions on speech, assembly, and other basic freedoms would take hold in Hong Kong as “absurd,” according to the Hong Kong Free Press (HKFP).
“Some of the things you have said about mainland [Chinese] agencies coming down to arrest people undergoing protests and they will be arrested for calling the chief executive to step down – at the moment are [in] your imagination,” the news agency quoted Lam as saying.
“We are a very free society. For the time being, people have this freedom to say whatever they want to say,” Lam added. “But ultimately, what is to be provided in this piece of legislation is for all of us see in order to be assured that Hong Kong’s freedoms will be preserved.”
Lam added a warning that “rights and freedoms are not absolute,” which did little to assuage concerns that her remarks were meant to prepare Hong Kong residents for Communist Party rule.
In other comments highlighted by the local broadcaster RTHK, Lam essentially blamed the pro-democracy movement for China cracking down.
“No country would allow an important matter like national security to be flawed in any way. Hong Kong has not been able to legislate locally in 23 years and, as I have mentioned before, in the foreseeable future it would be difficult for us to go for local legislation,” Lam said, a reference to protests against various anti-freedom proposals by her administration.
Lam made the remarks during a press conference before Hong Kong’s Executive Council and amid the ongoing meeting of China’s “Two Sessions” in Beijing, which brings together China’s two communist legislatures to enact universally agreed-upon laws. On the docket is a “national security” law the Communist Party insists is necessary because Hong Kong’s lawmakers at the Legislative Council (LegCo) never passed a similar law, creating a loophole Beijing believes pro-democracy protesters are exploited.
The law would expand the definition of crimes like treason and sedition to potentially apply to peaceful protest and general expressions of dissent.
Prominent members of the pro-democracy movement have warned that the national security law would effectively eliminate any civil rights differences between Hong Kong and China, destroying the longstanding tradition of Western rights and liberties enjoyed in the autonomous region.
“I know everyone is panicking and worrying. I also wonder what will become of Hong Kong after the National Security Law has passed. How many will be prosecuted? How many groups will be replaced?” protest leader Joshua Wong asked last week. “To what extent will the oppression be? Will we be transferred to China? Arrest or imprisonment?”
Financial leaders apparently agreed, as Hong Kong’s economy collapsed on Friday after Beijing announced its intentions.
Hong Kong has experienced nearly a year of ongoing protests against Lam’s government and Beijing, initially triggered by a proposed law that would have allowed the Communist Party to extradite anyone in Hong Kong if accused of violating China’s laws. Chinese law strictly controls freedom of speech, bans most religious practice, and mandates “patriotism” through brutal punishments for infractions like “picking quarrels” with public disagreement with the regime.
The extradition law failed, but protests continued in the name of protesters publicly beaten, arrested, and unjustly charged with various crimes for participating in peaceful assemblies. While the Chinese coronavirus pandemic resulted in several weeks of empty streets in the city, Lam’s decision to lift some coronavirus restrictions triggered an immediate return of the protests two weeks ago.
The protests are now focused on opposing the Chinese “national security” law.
Hong Kong police arrested 180 people this weekend for participating in protests that reportedly attracted thousands, even as coronavirus restrictions prohibit more than eight people to gather in one place. Police largely responded to the protests with tear gas and water cannons, prompting protesters to build barricades and attack businesses considered pro-police.
Most of the arrests were for violations of the Chinese coronavirus limitations. One exception highlighted by RTHK was the arrest of a 16-year-old boy for “rioting.” Police claimed that the boy was part of a group of four people who attacked a woman trying to clear a protester roadblock.
Police regularly arrest minors – and seniors – at pro-democracy protests. Two weeks ago, authorities confirmed the arrest of a 12-year-old at anti-China protests, though it is unclear what crime the child committed.
Authorities defending China’s national security law insist that the protesters are a violent threat to the stability of Hong Kong.
“The legislation will alleviate the grave concerns among local and foreign business communities about the violent and terrorist forces,” Xie Feng, commissioner of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Hong Kong, said in remarks Monday, repeatedly referring to the protesters as “terrorists.”
“Do not be intimidated or misled, exploited by those with ulterior motives and in particular, do not be a rumor monger yourself, or join the anti-China forces in stigmatizing or demonizing the legislation,” he warned Hong Kong residents.
The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) garrison in Hong Kong vowed to participate in the enforcement of the national security law once it passed, as well, adding to threats from civilian officials.
“[The garrison] will implement, according to law, various tasks delegated by the party and the people, and has the determination, confidence, and ability to safeguard national security and development interest as well as Hong Kong’s continuing prosperity,” Chen Daoxiang, the garrison commander, said this week.