China’s hand-picked leader for Hong Kong insisted Tuesday that the city can retain its special status despite a proposed new security law that critics say clears the way for a crackdown on anti-government protests by Beijing.
Embattled Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam, who had endured months of pro-democracy protests that have infuriated Beijing, said in a message to her constituents that they should not worry about controversial national security bill being considered by China’s national assembly, which critics inside and outside Hong Kong warn will infringe on the city’s promised autonomy. The proposed laws would allow the mainland’s intelligence and security agencies to establish bases inside the global financial hub for the first time, a move that Trump administration officials have called a “death knell” for Hong Kong’s independence.
The legislation — which China is expected to approve by Thursday — would also scale down the city’s separate legal status, first agreed to when Britain handed over the colony to Chinese control in 1997.
“There is no need for us to worry,” Ms. Lam said during a news conference. “In the last 23 years, whenever people worried about Hong Kong’s freedom of speech and freedom of expression and protest, time and again, Hong Kong has proven that we uphold and preserve those values.”
But critics noted that the national legislation revealed last week was only proposed when it became clear Hong Kong’s local government would never approve it.
The Trump administration on Tuesday added fuel to the opposition as White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow told Fox News that China’s attempts to implement the measure is “very disturbing” and could undercut Hong Kong’s status as a global financial center.
“China is making a big mistake, frankly,” he said.
The latest dispute over Hong Kong’s status comes in the wake of protests that embarrassed the Beijing-backed government. Only the global COVID-19 pandemic has curbed the angry street protests, which city officials have struggled to subdue.
Protests broke out again on Sunday over the proposed move, as police officers fired tear gas and arrested roughly 200 demonstrators. It was the first widespread demonstration the city has seen since thousands of protesters took to the streets last year to oppose an extradition bill with China that was ultimately withdrawn.
Hong Kong protests made headlines last year after peaceful opposition turned violent at times in the fight against the extradition bill. Anti-China activists in Hong Kong have now significantly expanded their political demands to demand guarantees of greater freedoms and electoral choices.
The U.S. and several European countries have backed Hong Kong’s resistance to Beijing’s latest move, and Britain said it also expects China to respect the city’s autonomy.
The U.K., the longtime colonial master in Hong Kong, turned the territory over to China in 1997 under a treaty that bound Beijing’s Communist rulers to respect Hong Kong’s autonomy as a special administrative region. It also bound China to leave Hong Kong’s liberal economy and local government for 50 years under the formulation “one country, two systems.”
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, one of the Trump administration’s most visible China hawks, is expected to release soon a congressionally-mandated report on the state of Hong Kong’s autonomy, and whether Hong Kong still qualifies for special economic treatment under U.S. law.