HONG KONG: Hong Kong will “fearlessly take action” against independence calls and protect China’s interests, leader Carrie Lam said Wednesday, as concerns grow that the city’s freedoms face an unprecedented challenge from Beijing.
Lam’s annual policy address came as her government stood accused of attacking press freedoms for barring a Financial Times journalist from working in Hong Kong after he chaired a talk by an independence activist at the city’s press club.
Any talk of independence incenses Beijing as Chinese President Xi Jinping increasingly emphasises the importance of territorial integrity.
“I will not tolerate any acts that advocate Hong Kong’s independence and threaten the country’s sovereignty, security and development interests,” Lam told legislators in a televised address.
“We will fearlessly take action against such acts according to the law in order to safeguard the interests of the country and Hong Kong.”
Before the speech began, pro-democracy lawmakers were escorted from the legislative chamber after shouting “Protect press freedom” and waving placards.
Hong Kong is governed under a semi-autonomous “One Country, Two Systems” set-up, with freedoms unseen on the mainland that are protected by a 50-year agreement made when Britain handed the city back to China in 1997.
But there are serious concerns those rights are under threat.
Lam repeatedly emphasised the notion of “One Country” in her speech and made no reference to freedom of expression and freedom of the press, a departure from last year’s address when she described those rights as “constitutional bulwarks”.
Questioned afterwards about the repeated “One Country” references, Lam said the address had paid tribute to Hong Kong’s own “unique” system and emphasised her role at the city’s helm.
“I’m not an ordinary mainland official,” she told reporters.
Rule by fear
Lam and her government have refused to explain why the FT’s Asia news editor Victor Mallet was denied a work visa.
Beijing regularly denies visas to foreign journalists on the mainland but it has not been a tactic used in Hong Kong.
The move has sparked considerable disquiet and anger among the city’s legal, business and media sectors and calls for an explanation from governments around the world including Britain and the United States.
Lam did not directly answer when a reporter asked her Wednesday for her response to Britain’s foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt, who described the visa denial as “politically motivated”.
Lam instead criticised Britain’s six-monthly reports on Hong Kong, noting they still continue “despite the unification”.
Andy Chan’s pro-independence party has been banned since his press club talk in August on the grounds it is a national security threat, the first such ban since 1997.
Lam said Wednesday the ban was “strong testimony” that the government would use existing laws to suppress independence activism until controversial anti-subversion law Article 23 is introduced.
Article 23 is part of Hong Kong’s mini-constitution but has never been implemented due to public fears it would curtail freedoms.
Pro-democracy lawmaker Claudia Mo, one of those ejected from the chamber Wednesday, accused Lam of using bullying tactics to suppress dissent.
“She’s trying to run Hong Kong with fear,” Mo told AFP.
Analyst Dixon Sing said Lam’s repeated use of “One Country” and her insistence on using existing laws to target independence activists was a way to appease Beijing but to stall on Article 23, which could be a “bombshell” for her leadership.
“There’s a lot of political pressure on her back,” said Sing.
The majority of Wednesday’s speech focused on domestic issues, primarily the city’s pressing housing shortage.
Lam pledged to reserve 70% of new residential units for public housing, including on planned artificial islands.
Dozens of protesters gathered outside the Legislative Council building ahead of the speech, protesting against a range of issues including pension reform and expensive infrastructure projects.