Hong Kong's future thrown into doubt with planned Beijing legislation
Financial industry on guard, proposed legislation likely to ramp up tensions with Washington
Hong Kong activists called on Friday for people to rise up against Beijing's plans to impose national security legislation in the city, prompting alarm that the new laws could erode freedoms through "force and fear."
A proposed march at noon in the central financial district did not materialize after online calls were heeded only by a handful of activists and as riot police made their presence visible on the streets.
But new calls have emerged for flash mobs at night across the territory. The Canadian Consulate there has warned of a "heightened possibility of demonstrations in Hong Kong this weekend," advising Canadians to monitor local media for any developments.
"This is a great moment to reboot the protest," said university student Kay, 24, who participated in last year's mass scale and often violent anti-government and anti-Beijing protests, which this year entered a lull due to the coronavirus.
Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam said her government will "fully co-operate" with the Chinese parliament to complete the legislation, which she said will not affect rights, freedoms or judicial independence.
The security law plan hit financial markets on Friday, due to concerns the semiautonomous city's status as a global financial hub was at risk. Hong Kong stocks were sold off as China's parliament sat to discuss the new law.
Hong Kong's Hang Seng index fell 5.6 per cent to a seven-week low.
Foreign diplomats are urgently seeking more details, fearing the statement could formalize and expand the presence of mainland security and intelligence services in Hong Kong. Currently they can take no enforcement action in the city.
More U.S. friction expected
The proposed legislation could heighten tensions between Beijing and Washington, whose relationship is already frayed by trade disputes and reciprocal accusations over the pandemic.
U.S. President Donald Trump said Thursday that Washington would react "very strongly" if Beijing went ahead with the security law, and his Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued a condemnation a day later.
The United States condemns the PRC proposal to impose national security legislation on Hong Kong and strongly urges Beijing to reconsider. We stand with the people of Hong Kong.—@SecPompeo
There was also bipartisan condemnation in Washington. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, called the development "deeply alarming."
"Attempting to circumvent the [Hong Kong] legislature shows a complete disrespect for the rule of law," Pelosi said on Twitter.
Republican Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri said he would introduce a resolution in the chamber on Friday, "condemning this attempted crackdown and [to] call on all free nations to stand with Hong Kong."
In Ottawa, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Canada was concerned about the situation.
"We have 300,000 Canadians who live in Hong Kong and that's one of the reasons why we want to ensure that the 'one country, two systems' approach continues for Hong Kong," said Trudeau. "We have long called for a de-escalation of tensions and genuine dialogue between Hong Kong citizens and Beijing, and we continue to call for that."
Trudeau did not address a reporter's question as to whether the government was considering a diplomatic rebuke of China or any kind of sanctions.
Laws could characterize protest as subversion, or terrorism
Speaking on Friday in his annual report to the Chinese parliament, Premier Li Keqiang said China will establish a "sound" legal system and enforcement mechanisms to ensure national security in Hong Kong and Macao, its other semi-autonomous city.
The proposed legislation for Hong Kong requires the territory to quickly finish enacting national security regulations under its mini-constitution, the Basic law, according to a draft seen by Reuters.
Hong Kong activist Joshua Wong reacts:
6/ HKers will not scare off in the face of wolf warrior policy on HK. We will continue our international advocacy & tell the truth of China’s authoritarianism to the world! Deep down HKProtesters know, we insist on not because we are strong, but because we have no other choice.—@joshuawongcf
The document said the laws will tackle secession, subversion and terrorism activities, as well as foreign interference. It says it will safeguard the central government's "overall jurisdiction" as well as Hong Kong's "high autonomy."
"When needed, relevant national security organs of the Central People's Government will set up agencies" in Hong Kong to safeguard national security, the draft said.
A previous attempt to adopt similar legislation in 2003 was met with a protest that drew around half a million people onto the streets and was eventually shelved.
Pro-democracy activists and politicians have for years opposed the idea of national security laws, arguing they could erode the city's high degree of autonomy, guaranteed under the "one country, two systems" handover agreement, which China says it is undermined by protesters.
Assets, talent could leave
Hong Kong competes fiercely with Singapore to be considered Asia's premier financial centre. Global private banks including Credit Suisse and UBS, as well as Asian wealth managers, have their regional operations in the two hubs.
Rule of law is widely seen as a major factor for global financial institutions that make the former British colony their regional home but the legislation could lead to the flight of capital and executives from the Asian financial hub, bankers and headhunters said on Friday.
WATCH l The National report:
"We have had instances where clients were considering establishing a presence in Hong Kong … but due to the pro-democracy protests in 2019, they decided to set up a presence in Singapore instead," said Rahul Sen, London-based partner for wealth management headhunting and consulting firm Boyden.
The American Chamber of Commerce (AmCham) in Hong Kong urged Beijing to spell out more details, saying in a statement the enactment of the law could "jeopardize future prospects" for international business.
With files from CBC News