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Plan for new repressive laws reignites rage in Hong Kong

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For the second time this year, pro-democracy protesters have filled the streets of Hong Kong. Sadie Robinson looks at what’s driving their anger
Issue 2707
People march to demand democratic rights in May
People march to demand democratic rights in May (Pic: Studio Incendo)

Angry protests have erupted in Hong Kong against a new clampdown on freedom of speech and protest. 

Cops have arrested hundreds and attacked demonstrators with water cannon, tear gas and pepper-spray bullets. Some of those detained were school children. 

Demonstrators are fighting two things. The first is a plan by China to impose new national security laws on Hong Kong. The second is an attempt by Hong Kong leaders to make ridiculing China’s national anthem a criminal offence. 

Opponents say the laws would radically undermine people’s rights.

Lawyer Antony Dapiran described China’s security laws as “the nuclear option—Beijing’s ultimate power to impose whatever it wants on Hong Kong”.

Another protester said, “When they say you’re guilty then you’re guilty. Of course we need to fight.”

China’s top legislature, the National People’s Congress, agreed a draft of the national security legislation last Thursday. It could now be finalised and passed later in the summer.

This would mark the first time that a Chinese law carrying criminal penalties is introduced into Hong Kong’s legal code. It would bypass the local legislature in the territory and any public consultation processes.

The new legislation would ­prohibit “splittism, subversion, terrorism, any behaviour that gravely threatens national security and foreign interference”. 

These terms are all up for interpretation by the Chinese state. And it’s unclear how China would enforce the law. For instance, Hong Kong has a separate judiciary. But the draft law instructs this judiciary to “effectively prevent, stop and punish acts endangering national security”.


The bill would also allow China’s secret police to be formally present in Hong Kong. 

Eyewitness from Hong Kong as protests force a retreat on extradition bill
Eyewitness from Hong Kong as protests force a retreat on extradition bill
  Read More

Opponents say all of this violates Hong Kong’s Basic Law. 

Hong Kong’s leader Carrie Lam has backed the legislation, claiming any fears that people’s rights would be limited were “imagination”. She said Hong Kong was a “very free society”. Yet she also said that people have freedom of speech “for the time being”. And she added, “Freedoms are not absolute.”

Lam said the laws target an “extremely small group”—referring to mass pro-democracy protests that erupted in Hong Kong last June.

Yet the protests involved at least a quarter of the population. 

And an opinion poll by the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute in March found that nearly two thirds of respondents backed them.

The authorities in China and Hong Kong claim their new laws will create a more “stable business environment for foreign investors”. 

So far they have sparked angry protests.

Protest movements in Hong Kong have repeatedly beaten back powerful states. New movements have emerged despite repression. 

The current actions are a continuation of the movement for change that began in Hong Kong one year ago and forced the state to retreat. They can win too. 

US and British rulers are no friends of the movement 

Some of the most right wing rulers across the globe have claimed to stand with protesters in Hong Kong.

US president Donald Trump’s press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said Trump was “displeased” at China’s attempt to impose its security law.

A large part of the displeasure is about money. 

The growth of China means the US can no longer dominate the world through economic power alone. Trump has spent the past couple of years launching trade wars against China as a result.

Hong Kong matters because it provides a bridge between China’s economy and the West. The Economist magazine has described it as a “gateway to the Chinese market” for many firms.

The West offers no solution to Hong Kong protesters
The West offers no solution to Hong Kong protesters
  Read More

If Hong Kong comes to be seen simply as another part of China, tensions between global ruling classes and bosses will intensify. 

As McEnany complained, it is “hard to see how Hong Kong can remain a financial hub if China takes over”. Over 1,300 US firms have offices in Hong Kong, employing around 100,000 workers. But the US isn’t alone in wanting to limit China’s power to help out other rich people.

The last British governor of Hong Kong and former Tory party chair Lord Chris Patten has said Britain’s government must “stand up to” China.

“The Hong Kong people have been betrayed by China,” he said. “What we are seeing is a new Chinese dictatorship.”

Britain ran Hong Kong until it handed it back to China in 1997. It had grabbed the territory at the end of the first Opium War in 1839. Under British rule there was no democracy, and most public protest was illegal. 

We should take no lessons in how to defend rights and freedoms from any of our rulers.

Anger over anthem insult

Hong Kong’s leaders want to make it illegal to insult China’s national anthem, March of the Volunteers.

If their bill is passed, anyone showing “intent to insult” when singing the anthem could be fined or thrown in jail for three years. The bill hasn’t defined what “insulting” is. 

The vote on the law is set for 4 June—the anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. 

Strong history of protests

Hong Kong has a mini-constitution called the Basic Law. 

Under this, it is required to implement a new national security law to replace British colonial legislation that was revoked in 1997. 

In 2003, Hong Kong’s first chief executive or leader, Tung Chee-hwa, tried to pass authoritarian legislation. Mass protests forced him to withdraw.

Win over the extradition law

A huge pro‑democracy movement erupted last June in response to a proposed “extradition law”. The law would have made it easier for China to target political opponents by allowing “suspects” to be extradited to China.

A mass movement forced Hong Kong’s rulers to withdraw the bill. 

It saw at least a quarter of the population join militant protests and several partial general strikes.


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