China’s military is ready and able to “safeguard” Chinese sovereignty in Hong Kong, the commander of the city-based garrison has said, amid growing anger at Beijing’s plans to bypass Hong Kong’s legislature and impose national security laws in the city.
The warning came as protesters prepared for further demonstrations on Wednesday when the legislature starts debate on a controversial bill to criminalise ridicule of the Chinese national anthem.
In an interview with Chinese state television, Chen Daoxiang, the commander of the People’s Liberation Army garrison in Hong Kong, said it has the “determination, confidence and ability to protect national security” in the city.
Despite international condemnation, protests on Sunday and further protests planned for this week, Beijing and Hong Kong authorities have refused to back down on Friday’s declaration by China’s National People’s Congress (NPC) to impose national security laws, bypassing Hong Kong’s legislature.
Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, maintained full support for the move, saying the Hong Kong government had been unable to pass the laws itself for 23 years, and was unlikely to in the near future.
At her weekly press conference on Tuesday, Lam defended the legality of NPC promulgating the law as “sound and robust”.
Lam repeatedly refused to answer if the proposed laws would be retrospective – a fear held by many who organised or participated in protests last year.
On Monday, China’s senior presence in the city, the Liaison office, condemned Sunday’s protests, which began peacefully but saw a heavy police response including teargas, pepper spray and water cannon, as well as two alleged protester assaults on opponents.
It warned against “underestimating” Beijing’s determination to crack down on calls for Hong Kong independence.
“We sternly warn these people and the forces behind them not to underestimate the central government’s rock-firm determination to uphold national sovereignty, security and development interests and to safeguard Hong Kong’s prosperity and stability and Hong Kong compatriots’ fundamental interests,” the liaison office spokesperson said.
Large protests are expected again on Wednesday, as Hong Kong legislators begin debating the national anthem bill. Authorities began sealing off areas around the LegCo building on Monday. Several days have been set aside for debate, and the vote is scheduled for 4 June – the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre and another source of controversy given Hong Kong’s vigil this year won’t be allowed.
Under the proposed anthem law, a person would commit an offence if they take various actions with “intent to insult” the anthem, such as changing lyrics or music or singing in a “disrespectful way”. Recent booing of the Chinese anthem, March of the Volunteers, at Hong Kong football marches has embarrassed Beijing.
The law carries financial penalties and jail time of up to three years.
Opponents say the legislation could be weaponised against pro-democracy activists and legislators. It has already led to physical confrontations in LegCo.
“If you show any disrespect, which is a loosely defined concept legally, they’ll use it against you,” says Dennis Kwok, pro-democracy lawmaker.
“This kind of law is the hallmark of an authoritarian government, whenever they see something they don’t like, they try to criminalise it. They are clamping down on freedom.”
The Hong Kong government rejected claims it suppresses freedom of speech, saying the spirit of the bill was about “respect”, and an offence only occurs if someone expresses their views by publicly and intentionally insulting the anthem.
Prominent democrat legislator Claudia Mo said the current political climate has driven opposition.
“Things have changed in the last two decades in Hong Kong,” she says. “We have reached a point of no return in not trusting this government.”
The government says it has a constitutional responsibility to enact the anthem law quickly, and has declared it a priority.
By Helen Davidson