Tension boils in Hong Kong as new national security bill looms

Two pro-democracy politicians removed from debating chamber amid increasing tension over Hong Kong's future.

    Firefighters in gas masks check the Legislative Council chamber after a pan-democrat politician threw a 'smelly object' during the second reading of the controversial national anthem bill, suspending debate [Jerome Favre/EPA]
    Firefighters in gas masks check the Legislative Council chamber after a pan-democrat politician threw a 'smelly object' during the second reading of the controversial national anthem bill, suspending debate [Jerome Favre/EPA]

    Hong Kong's legislature was suspended and two pro-democracy politicians ejected from the chamber on Thursday after scuffles between politicians debating a controversial bill that made it a criminal offence to "disrespect" China's national anthem, as tensions spiked in the semi-autonomous territory.

    The two politicians were thrown out after one of them threw a "smelly object" in the debating chamber.

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    Tensions were rising in Hong Kong after China announced a week ago that it planned to impose national security legislation in the territory in a move that has been condemned internationally amid concerns about the impact on Hong Kong's autonomy.

    On Thursday, China's rubber-stamp parliament approved decision to move forward with the legislation. 

    "The legislation on Hong Kong was a decisive show of force by Xi Jinping, signalling a willingness to defy international opinion, to challenge the United States and to threaten the people of Hong Kong - and by extension, the people on Taiwan as well," said Daniel Russel, Vice President of the Asia Society Policy Institute. 

    Hong Kong
    Hong Kong riot police were out in force on Wednesday and again on Thursday amid rising tensions over China's plan to impose a national security law on the semi-autonomous territory and a bill that would make insulting the Chinese national anthem a crime [Vincent Yu/AP Photo]

    "There is little sympathy for Hong Kong protesters on the mainland, and this muscle-flexing by Xi is a timely distraction from the government’s early missteps on COVID-19 and the serious unemployment and economic problems that have followed the lockdown measures."

    Clash at UN

    On Wednesday, United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Hong Kong was "no longer autonomous" from China; a move that could mean the city will no longer benefit from the special economic treatment that has helped make it one of the world's most dynamic trading and financial hubs.

    At a briefing later, David Stilwell, a senior official in the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs said actions would be considered and targeted.

    "It can across the spectrum. It can be personnel, it can be visa sanctions," Stilwell said. "Obviously, there's economic sanctions and other things that we can do."

    The US and China also clashed in the United Nations as China blocked a request for the Security Council to meet over the national security legislation. 

    The US Mission to the UN said the issue was a "matter of global concern that implicates international peace and security". China says the legislation is an internal affair. 

    US President Donald Trump has said he will announce what action he will take by the end of the week.

    Ying Rong, at the China Institute of International Studies in Beijing, told Al Jazeera that the "stability and prosperity" of Hong Kong and its position as a global financial centre served the interests not only of Hong Kong and China, but the rest of the world. He was doubtful about the impact of any US action on China.

    "I don't think sanctions would undermine China's determination," he said. "Rather, in the end, it would end up undermining the US's own interests."

    More than 300 Hong Kong protesters arrested

    Hong Kong has been roiled by protests which began last June after the government tried to push through a now-abandoned extradition bill. What started with mass marches for the bill's withdrawal have evolved into broader calls for democracy and China to respect the freedoms and rights that are part of Hong Kong's mini-constitution or Basic Law.

    The national anthem bill has been another flashpoint, with the territory's pro-democracy supporters seeing it as another example of China's growing interference. It has been jeered at during large gatherings including football matches, and more than 300 people were detained on Wednesday as riot police sealed off the legislature where the bill was supposed to be debated.

    The law includes provisions that threaten to punish those who "insult" the anthem with up to three years in jail and/or fines of up to HK$50,000 ($6,450).

    The bill says that "all individuals and organisations" should respect and dignify the national anthem and play it and sing it on "appropriate occasions", and orders that primary and secondary schools should teach their  students not only how to sing but also its history and etiquette.

    Is Hong Kong's autonomy dead?

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    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies