HONG KONG (REUTERS) - Hong Kong’s national security law imposed by Beijing last week was not “doom and gloom” for the city, its leader Carrie Lam said on Tuesday (July 7), as she tried to calm unease over legislation that critics say could mean the end of freedoms that have underpinned the city’s success as a financial hub.
In an illustration of worries about the law, the video app TikTok said it was preparing to leave the Hong Kong market in response to it, and other tech firms said they were suspending processing Hong Kong government requests for user data.
The sweeping legislation punishes what China describes broadly as secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces, with up to life in prison.
It came into force at the same time it was made public, just before midnight last Tuesday (June 30), with police arresting about 300 people in protests the next day – about 10 of them for suspected violations of it.
“Surely, this is not doom and gloom for Hong Kong,” Ms Lam told a regular weekly news conference.
“I’m sure, with the passage of time, and efforts and facts are being laid out, confidence will grow in ‘one country, two systems’ and in Hong Kong’s future,” she said.
The legislation has been criticised by nations such as Britain and the United States, and rights groups, for undermining freedoms guaranteed under the “one country, two systems” agreed as part of the former British colony’s return to Chinese rule in 1997.
Both Hong Kong and Chinese government officials have said the law, which gives mainland security agencies an enforcement presence in the city for the first time, was vital to plug holes in national security defences, exposed by the city’s failure to pass such legislation itself as required under its mini-constitution, the Basic Law.
Critics say its aim is to stamp out a pro-democracy movement that brought months of protests, at times violent, to the city last year.
Lam said cases involving a new mainland agency that will be set up in Hong Kong under the law would be “rare”, but nevertheless, national security was a “ red line” that should not be crossed.
The legislation was not harsh when compared with that of other countries, she said.
“It is a rather mild law. Its scope is not as broad as that in other countries and even China,” she said.
Despite such assurances, the law has had a chilling effect.
Pro-democracy activists such as Joshua Wong disbanded their organisations while others have left.
Many shops have removed protest-related products and decorations and public libraries have removed some books seen as supportive of the democracy movement.
Canada has suspended an extradition treaty with Hong Kong.
TikTok, a video app owned by China-based ByteDance, which has said in the past its user data is not stored in China, said it will exit the Hong Kong market within days.
Facebook, which also owns WhatsApp and Instagram, Google and Twitter suspended processing government requests for user data in Hong Kong.
But Lam said she had not noticed widespread fears and the law would restore the city’s status as one of the safest in the world after the violent pro-democracy protests last year.
The final power of interpretation of the law lies with authorities in mainland China, where human rights groups have reported arbitrary detentions and disappearances.
China has been clamping down on dissent and tightening censorship.
China’s official Procuratorial Daily paper said authorities had launched a special taskforce to ramp up political policing to maintain social stability.
The news came on the day that Xu Zhangrun, a Beijing law professor who has been an outspoken critic of the ruling Communist Party and President Xi Jinping, was taken away by authorities.
Late on Monday, Hong Kong released additional details of the law, saying security forces had overriding authority to enter and search properties for evidence and stop people from leaving the city.
Ms Lam, asked about media freedom, said if reporters could guarantee they would not breach the new law, she could guarantee they would be allowed to report freely.
“We will do our utmost to explain the provisions in the law and to show to the people of Hong Kong how this law will be implemented,” she said.
“Ultimately, time and facts will tell that this law will not undermine human rights and freedoms.”