China’s plans to impose a new security law on Hong Kong will “only target a handful of lawbreakers”, the city’s leader has said as she tried to reassure residents, investors and businesses rattled by the proposal.
Carrie Lam’s comments on Tuesday came amid widespread concerns over Beijing’s plans for legislation aiming to tackle “secession, subversion, terrorism and foreign interference” in semi-autonomous Hong Kong.
It could also see Chinese intelligence agencies set up bases in the city.
Many Hong Kongers, business groups and Western nations fear the proposal could be a death knell to the city’s treasured freedoms and usher in an end to the territory passing its own laws.
The announcement of the plans for the new law – which will be written by Beijing and bypass Hong Kong’s legislature – sparked the biggest drop on the city’s stock exchange in five years on Friday. And on Sunday, thousands of protesters thronged the streets in scenes that evoked memories of last year’s pro-democracy protests.
Many chanted: “Hong Kong independence, the only way out.” Police fired tear gas and water cannons to disperse the crowd and arrested almost 200 people.
But Lam said fears the city’s freedoms were at risk were “totally groundless”.
“Hong Kong’s freedoms will be preserved and Hong Kong’s vibrancy and the core values in terms of the rule of law, the independence of the judiciary, the various rights and freedoms enjoyed by people, will continue to be there,” she told reporters.
The proposed law, she said, “only targets a handful of lawbreakers… it protects the vast majority of law-abiding, peace-loving residents”.
Hong Kong is governed under a “one country, two systems” framework that guarantees the city’s people rights and freedoms not seen in mainland China, including freedom of expression and the right to protest.
Lam said those concerned about the proposed legislation needed to wait for its details.
“There is no need for us to worry because time and again, in the last 23 years, whenever people worried about Hong Kong’s freedoms of speech and freedoms of expressions and protest, time and again, Hong Kong has proven that we uphold and preserve those values,” she said.
“So, I think the best thing is to see the legislation in front of us and to understand why at this point in time, Hong Kong needs this piece of legislation for the bigger benefit of the great majority of Hong Kong people.”
Separately, the commander of China’s military garrison in Hong Kong said in a rare interview that the garrison firmly supported the security legislation.
Chen Doaxing told Chinese state television the garrison had the determination and ability to safeguard China’s national sovereignty and the long-term prosperity and security of the city.
China’s military has remained in barracks in Hong Kong throughout the past year, leaving Hong Kong police to confront pro-democracy activists.
More protests are expected in Hong Kong on Wednesday when the city’s legislature is due to discuss another controversial law on the national anthem.
Asked by a reporter whether the new security law would allow mainland police to arrest protesters in Hong Kong, Lam dismissed the question as “your imagination”.
She said anti-government protests would continue to be allowed “if it is done in a legal way” but did not elaborate on what that would mean under the new law.
The United States, Australia, Britain, Canada and others have expressed concerns about the legislation.
Washington is considering whether to maintain Hong Kong’s special status in US law, which has helped it maintain its position as a global financial centre. It has also raised the threat of sanctions against Hong Kong and China.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has called the proposal “a death knell for the high degree of autonomy” that Beijing promised the former British colony when it was returned to China in 1997.
Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong, lamented what he called “a new Chinese dictatorship.”
“I think the Hong Kong people have been betrayed by China, which has proved once again that you can’t trust it further than you can throw it,” Patten said in an interview with The Times in London.
Patten is leading a coalition of at least 204 international legislators and policymakers who have condemned the proposed legislation. In a statement, the coalition called it a “flagrant breach” of the Sino-British Joint Declaration, a 1984 treaty that promised Hong Kong a high degree of autonomy even after the handover to China.
Beijing has dismissed those concerns.
Speaking at an annual news conference during the legislative session, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said on Sunday that Hong Kong affairs were an internal matter for China, and that “no external interference will be tolerated”.
“Excessive unlawful foreign meddling in Hong Kong affairs has placed China’s national security in serious jeopardy,” Wang said, adding that the proposed legislation “does not affect the high degree of autonomy in Hong Kong”.
“It does not affect the rights and freedoms enjoyed by Hong Kong residents. And it does not affect the legitimate rights and interests of foreign investors in Hong Kong,” he said.