Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam attempted to assuage concerns over risks to the city’s freedoms after Beijing proposed a “national security” law last week.
Lam, speaking at her weekly press conference on May 26, was asked by a reporter whether she could guarantee that Hongkongers could still protest on the streets, and voice their opposition to her policies and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), if the proposed law from Beijing is enacted.
She didn’t respond directly to the question. Instead, she asked people not to worry, saying that “legal” protests would not be in the crosshairs of the national security law.
“Protest itself is an expression of freedoms and rights and opinions if it is done in a legal way. You must observe the law,” Lam said. “It has to depend on the circumstances and whether it has been done in a legal fashion.”
Hong Kong police have on many occasions refused to approve protest applications, citing security concerns. During the protests sparked by the Lam government’s extradition bill proposed last year, despite having no official approval, Hong Kong protesters continued to take to the streets, voicing their demands for universal suffrage and an independent inquiry into instances of police violence.
On May 24, thousands took to the streets of Hong Kong Island to protest against the CCP’s national security law that may, in an unprecedented move by Beijing, be enacted without scrutiny from the city’s legislature. In response, local police fired tear gas, pepper spray, and a water cannon in an effort to disperse protesters, and arrested 193 people—the youngest being 12 years old—on charges such as “illegal assembly.”
Lam explained that from the government’s perspective, she has to take into account the “safety and security” of the 1.4 billion people of China.
“As a result, we take the legislation proposed by the central government at the national level for granted. If there is objection, we would deal with illegal opposition acts in accordance with law and will not back down,” Lam said.
Lam also defended the CCP’s security law, arguing that it was intended to target “a small number of criminals.”
Her words echoed recent comments made by China’s state-run media, which stated that the security law only targeted “a small group of people that seriously endanger national security,” or a small group of “secessionists” in Hong Kong.
Since June last year, China’s state-run media have repeatedly portrayed Hong Kong protesters as a “small number of people,” among them “rioters” and “radicals,” saying the “majority” of Hongkongers support Beijing’s hopes that the protests will come to an end.
Currently, Hong Kong has a population of about 7.4 million people. In 2003, half a million took to the streets in protest against Article 23—an anti-subversion bill pushed by Beijing. Many feared the the proposal would threaten the city’s autonomy and their basic freedoms. Article 23 was eventually shelved.
Then in June last year, protests against the extradition bill drew millions of Hongkongers onto the streets, which eventually led to the bill being scrapped.
Lam told Hong Kong that the national security law was not a replacement for Article 23 and expressed hope that the latter would also move ahead in the city’s legislature. She said her government would “take the firm stand to fully support and collaborate with Beijing.”
Lam also accused foreign politicians of making “wrongful statements” and having “double standards” with their comments about the legality of implementing the national security law.
After Beijing’s rubber-stamp legislature, the National People’s Congress, announced the proposed law on May 21, it was immediately condemned by multiple countries and regions, including the United States, Taiwan, and Australia.
On May 25, U.S. Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) issued a statement condemning Beijing’s efforts to destroy Hong Kong’s freedoms of press, speech, and assembly.
“Should Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam continue to follow the dictates of Chinese Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping and fail to protect the rights of the people of Hong Kong, she will have presided over the death of ‘One Country, Two Systems,” Smith stated.
“And the United States will be forced, by statute, to reassess the status of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region and our relationship with it.”
Also on May 25, the Hong Kong Bar Association issued a statement expressing multiple concerns about Beijing’s proposed law.
The association stated that there was no assurance that the law would “comply or be required to comply with provisions of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which is entrenched in [Hong Kong’s mini constitution] the Basic Law.”
It also expressed concerns about the likely scenario that Beijing’s security agencies would be granted justification over matters in Hong Kong.
It questioned whether these agencies would “have the power of enforcement and whether such powers as exercised will be limited by the laws currently in force in the HKSAR.”
Reuters contributed to this report.