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Hong Kong’s leader hits out at Washington over human rights law

Carrie Lam, then-Secretary for Administration of Hong Kong. (Voice of America/Wikimedia Commons)
December 08, 2019

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam on Tuesday hit back at the United States over its passing of a law aimed at protecting human rights in the city, which is in the grip of a six-month-old protest movement calling for more democracy and the protection of its traditional freedoms and autonomy.

“The Hong Kong government strongly opposes the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act passed by the U.S. Congress and signed by the U.S. President,” Lam said. “We feel that this bill is completely unnecessary and totally unjustified.”

“Of course it will have an impact … on confidence and because it creates an unstable environment, because companies will worry about the future with regard to the U.S. government,” she said.

“Everyone knows that U.S. companies play a very important part in Hong Kong, with more than 1,300 U.S. companies, most of them … headquartered here or having their regional headquarters here,” she said.

“This environment of uncertainty and lack of confidence is certainly not beneficial to … anything in our economy.”

Beijing on Monday said it would target U.S.-based NGOs and suspend naval visits to Hong Kong in retaliation for the passing of the Human Rights and Democracy Act by Washington last month.

U.S. President Donald Trump signed the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act a week after the legislation cleared the House of Representatives 417-1 in a show of support for Hong Kong after months of pro-democracy protests.

The new act requires the U.S. State Department to report annually to Congress whether Hong Kong is “sufficiently autonomous from China” to justify keeping the city’s distinct trading status, and whether China has “eroded Hong Kong’s civil liberties and rule of law,” as protected by the city’s Basic Law.

It also enables the U.S. government to freeze the assets of, and refuse visas to, officials deemed responsible for human rights violations in the city.

‘Nothing to add’

Tens of thousands of people poured onto the streets of Hong Kong, waving American flags and singing the national anthem of the United States in a gesture of thanks after the new law was passed.

Meanwhile, Lam said there was “no way to avoid” the use of tear gas on a legally approved march of tens of thousands of protesters in Kowloon on Sunday.

She declined to comment further on the five demands of the protest movement, saying only: “There is nothing to add.”

Lam eventually withdrew legal amendments that would have allowed extradition to mainland China, but protesters also want fully democratic elections to the city’s Legislative Council (LegCo) and for the post of chief executive, an amnesty for the thousands of people arrested since protests began, an end to the use of the term “rioting,” and an independent inquiry into police violence.

Lam and her officials have repeatedly ruled out meeting any of the other demands.

But she said her administration plans to dig into its reserves of around H.K.$110 billion to invest in the economy and to help businesses recover.

“We need to make our economy recover as quickly as possible,” she said, citing the trade war between Beijing and Washington and the past six months of social unrest at home.

“We want to see which companies and sectors are struggling the most,” she said. “We will provide them with some relief, and hope to help them solve the difficulties they are currently in.”

And she proposed setting up an “independent review committee” to research the causes of the protest movement.

“We don’t want to see this social unrest recurring in future,” she said, but declined to set up an independent inquiry into police violence against protesters, one of the five demands.

Independent inquiry into police violence

Rights groups, pro-democracy politicians and the protest movement have all demanded an independent inquiry into police violence and abuse of power, saying that the current complaints system adds up to the police investigating complaints against themselves.

Lam said the police complaints commission should be allowed to “finish its investigations,” however.

Icarus Wong of Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor group said media reports of plans to swell the ranks of the police force by more than 1,000 officers by bringing them out of retirement and retraining auxiliaries for “riot control” was contributing to the widely held view that the city is now a police state.

“Not only do we have a very large police force; we have a police force that is using increasingly forceful measures to deal with demonstrations and rallies,” Wong said.

“I am particularly concerned by the expansion of the duties [of auxiliaries] to include ‘riot control’ work,” he said.

The Police Public Relations Bureau hadn’t responded to requests for confirmation of those figures by the time of writing on Tuesday.

Pro-democracy lawmaker Lam Cheuk-ting said the police force is now at the end of its resources after six months of street protests and pitched battles with frontline protesters, but that no new funding requests have been submitted to the city’s Legislative Council (LegCo).

“The sums required to finance [overtime] have been astronomical,” Lam said. “That’s why I don’t understand how they can be planning to rely on existing, internal resources.”

Hong Kong police have arrested nearly 6,000 people since the anti-extradition movement broadened into a city-wide pro-democracy movement in early June, with hundreds of rioting and public order prosecutions currently in the pipeline.