Thousands protest Chinese security law as unrest returns to Hong Kong

By James Pomfret and Jessie Pang

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong police fired tear gas and water cannon to disperse thousands of people who rallied on Sunday to protest against Beijing’s plan to impose national security laws on the city.

In a return of the unrest that roiled Hong Kong last year, crowds thronged the Causeway Bay shopping area in defiance of curbs imposed to contain the coronavirus. Chants of “Hong Kong independence, the only way out,” echoed through the streets.

To Communist Party leaders, calls for independence for the semi-autonmous city are anathema and the proposed new national security framework stresses Beijing’s intent “to prevent, stop and punish” such acts.

As dusk fell, police and demonstrators faced off in the nightlife district of Wan Chai.

The day’s events pose a new challenge to Beijing’s authority as it struggles to tame public opposition to its tightening grip over Hong Kong, a trade and business gateway for mainland China.

The security laws have also worried financial markets and drawn a rebuke from foreign governments, human rights groups and some business lobbies.

“I am worried that after the implementation of the national security law, they will go after those being charged before and the police will be further out of control,” said Twinnie, 16, a secondary school student who declined to give her last name.

“I am afraid of being arrested but I still need to come out and protest for the future of Hong Kong.”

The demonstrations come amid concerns over the fate of the “one country, two systems” formula that has governed Hong Kong since the former British colony’s return to Chinese rule in 1997. The arrangement guarantees the city broad freedoms not seen on the mainland, including a free press and independent judiciary.

Washington said on Sunday China’s proposed legislation could lead to U.S. sanctions.

“It looks like, with this national security law, they’re going to basically take over Hong Kong and if they do … Secretary (of State Mike) Pompeo will likely be unable to certify that Hong Kong maintains a high degree of autonomy and if that happens there will be sanctions that will be imposed on Hong Kong and China,” National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien told NBC television.

As the city government sought to give reassurances over the new laws, police conducted stop-and-search operations in Causeway Bay and warned people not to violate a ban on gatherings of more than eight.

That restriction, imposed to contain the spread of coronavirus, has kept protesters largely off the streets in recent months.

Protesters set up roadblocks and hurled umbrellas, water bottles and other objects, police said, adding that they responded with tear gas and made more than 120 arrests.

Many shops and other businesses closed early.

The scenes evoked memories of last year’s sometimes violent anti-government protests, which drew up to two million people in the biggest single protest.

Anti-government protesters march against Beijing’s plans to impose national security legislation in Hong Kong, China May 24, 2020. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

“WE HAVE TO RESIST IT”

A small group of democracy activists protested outside Beijing’s main representative office in the city, chanting: “National security law is destroying two systems.”

“In the future, they can arrest, lock up and silence anyone they want in the name of national security. We have to resist it,” protester Avery Ng of the League for Social Democrats told Reuters.

Nearly 200 political figures from around the world said in a statement the proposed laws were a “comprehensive assault on the city’s autonomy, rule of law and fundamental freedoms”.

China has dismissed foreign complaints as “meddling,” and said the proposed laws will not harm Hong Kong’s autonomy or investors.

Beijing’s top diplomat said the proposed legislation would target a narrow category of acts and would have no impact on the city’s freedoms nor the interests of foreign firms.

Last year’s anti-government protests plunged Hong Kong into its biggest political crisis in decades, battered the economy, and posed the gravest popular challenge to President Xi Jinping since he came to power in 2012.

(Reporting by James Pomfret, Jessie Pang, Donny Kwok, Twinnie Siu, Pak Yiu; Writing by Anne Marie Roantree; Editing by John Stonestreet and Angus MacSwan)

Hong Kong protests and China’s tightening grip rattle business community

FILE PHOTO: Anti-extradition bill protesters stand behind a barricade during a demonstration near a flag raising ceremony for the anniversary of Hong Kong handover to China in Hong Kong, China July 1, 2019. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu/File Photo

By Iris Yuan and Vimvam Tong

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Chaotic scenes of protesters rampaging through Hong Kong’s legislature, trashing furniture and daubing graffiti over walls have sent jitters through the business community, which worries about the impact on the city’s status as a financial hub.

Plumes of smoke billowed among gleaming sky-scrapers early on Tuesday as police fired tear gas to disperse protesters in the heart of the Chinese-ruled city, home to the offices of some of the world’s biggest companies, including global bank HSBC.

Escalating unrest over a controversial extradition bill, which would allow people to be sent to mainland China for trial, grabbed global headlines and clouded the former British colony’s outlook as a finance hub, one of the city’s main pillars of growth.

“I think there will be damage to the reputation of Hong Kong,” said Yumi Yung, 35, who works in fintech. “Some companies may want to leave Hong Kong, or at least not have their headquarters here.”

Around 1,500 multinational companies make Hong Kong their Asian home because of its stability and rule of law. Some of the biggest and most violent protests in decades could change that perception.

Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1997 under a “one country, two systems” formula that allows freedoms not enjoyed in mainland China, including freedom to protest and an independent judiciary. Monday was the 22nd anniversary.

Beijing denies interfering but, for many Hong Kong residents, the extradition bill is the latest step in a relentless march towards mainland control. Many fear it would put them at the mercy of courts controlled by the Communist Party where human rights are not guaranteed.

“If this bill is not completely scrapped, I will have no choice but to leave my home, Hong Kong,” said Steve, a British lawyer who has worked in Hong Kong for 30 years.

Daniel Yim, a 27-year-old investment banker, said both sides needed to sit down and work things out.

“I think the most effective way to address this will be that the government will … actually tackle this and speak to the people, and I guess, you know, both sides sit together and come up with … the appropriate solution.”

LOSING FREEDOM

Others raised concerns about the future of human rights and the judiciary. Many did not want to use their full names.

“To me, the biggest worry is how Hong Kong is losing its independence bit by bit and is getting dangerously close to a country that doesn’t value human rights and that doesn’t have an independent judicial system,” said Edward, an Australian citizen who has worked in the financial sector for 10 years.

The extradition bill, now suspended but not scrapped, has also spooked some tycoons into moving their personal wealth offshore, according to financial advisers familiar with the details.

An Australian businesswoman who has worked in Hong Kong for 16 years lamented what she saw as Beijing’s tightening grip.

“China is just taking away more and more freedom from Hong Kong,” she said.

“I feel sorry for Hong Kong people, especially Hong Kong people … (here) for more freedom, a better economy, a better life, and now it’s going backwards,” the woman said.

Such concerns came as China’s top newspaper warned on Wednesday that outbreaks of lawlessness could damage Hong Kong’s reputation and seriously hurt its economy.

Calm has returned for now, but the events of recent weeks have set many people thinking.

“If it had escalated, I would consider moving elsewhere,” a 44-year-old hedge fund manager said of the ransacking of the legislature. “I employ four to five people in Hong Kong so yes, I would consider moving.”

(Additional reporting by Sumeet Chatterjee; Writing by Anne Marie Roantree; Editing by Paul Tait and Nick Macfie)

China police detain students protesting crackdown on Marxist group

People cycle past a building in Peking University in Beijing, China, July 27, 2016. REUTERS/Thomas Peter/File Photo

By Christian Shepherd

BEIJING (Reuters) – Chinese police detained a group of students on Friday who were protesting against a crackdown on a campus Marxist society, whose former head was held by police on the 125th birthday of the founder of modern China, Mao Zedong. China has an awkward relationship with the legacy of Mao, who died in 1976 and is still officially venerated by the ruling Communist Party.

But far leftists in recent years have latched onto Mao’s message of equality, posing awkward questions at a time of unprecedented economic boom that has seen a rapidly widening gap between the rich and the poor.

In particular, students and recent graduates have teamed up with labor activists to support factory workers fighting for the right to set up their own union. Dozens of activists have been detained in a government crackdown that followed.

Qiu Zhanxuan, head of the Peking University Marxist Society, said he was approached on Wednesday morning at a subway station by plainclothes police who said they wanted him to answer questions about an event he was organizing to celebrate Mao’s birthday. Mao was born on Dec. 26, 1893.

When Qiu refused, the men took his phone, forced him into a car and drove him to a police station where he was questioned for 24 hours before being released with a warning, Qiu said, according to accounts provided by fellow students, who declined to be identified.

Late on Thursday, the university’s extracurricular activities guidance office released a notice saying police had penalized Qiu and he “did not have the qualifications” to continue as head of the society.

The teachers in charge of guiding the group had determined its members had deviated from promises made to teachers when the group was registered and so had “restructured” the group, the office said.

The “restructuring” was an attempt to “scatter” the group after weeks of continuous harassment by campus police and attempts to cast its members as being involved in a “conspiracy”, Qiu said, according to the accounts of his comments.

Qiu declined additional comment to Reuters.

‘PICKING QUARRELS’

None of the people on the new list of student leaders released by university authorities were previous members of the group, and many of them are members of the official Student Association that had been involved in harassing the group, Qiu said.

“We don’t recognize this,” he added, according to the accounts of his comments.

Later on Friday, a small group of students staged a protest against the action by the authorities, but were themselves detained by police, according to video footage sent to Reuters by one of the students.

The university referred Reuters to the statement issued by its extracurricular activities guidance office on why the Marxist group had been restructured.

The Ministry of Public Security did not respond to requests for comment.

Student unrest is highly sensitive, especially as next year marks 30 years since the bloody suppression of student-led pro-democracy protests in and around Tiananmen Square.

Qiu said his non-academic school adviser, a deputy secretary of the Social Sciences party committee, Shi Changyi, was with him while police questioned him and had advised him not to be “extreme” or “impulsive”, according to the accounts of his comments.

Reuters was unable to reach Shi for comment.

Police gave Qiu a subpoena saying he was suspected of “picking quarrels and stirring up trouble”, which is a crime, but they declined to elaborate, he said, according to the accounts of his comments.

“This was, plain and simple, a plan to restrict my personal freedom and to use these inhuman and illegal means to stop me from going to commemorate Chairman Mao.”

(Reporting by Christian Shepherd; Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard and Cate Cadell; Editing by Robert Birsel)

China outlaws large underground Protestant church in Beijing

FILE PHOTO: The head pastor of the Zion church in Beijing Jin Mingri poses for picures in the lobby of the unofficial Protestant "house" church in Beijing, China, August 28, 2018. Picture taken August 28, 2018. REUTERS/Thomas Peter

By Christian Shepherd

BEIJING (Reuters) – Beijing city authorities have banned one of the largest unofficial Protestant churches in the city and confiscated “illegal promotional materials”, amid a deepening crackdown on China’s “underground” churches.

The Zion church had for years operated with relative freedoms, hosting hundreds of worshippers every weekend in an expansive specially renovated hall in north Beijing.

But since April, after they rejected requests from authorities to install closed-circuit television cameras in the building, the church has faced growing pressure from the authorities and has been threatened with eviction.

On Sunday, the Beijing Chaoyang district civil affairs bureau said that by organizing events without registering, the church was breaking rules forbidding mass gatherings and were now “legally banned” and its “illegal promotional material” had been confiscated, according to images of the notice sent to Reuters late on Sunday and confirmed by churchgoers.

“I fear that there is no way for us to resolve this issue with the authorities,” Zion’s Pastor Jin Mingri told Reuters.

China’s religious affairs and civil affairs bureaux did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

China’s constitution guarantees religious freedom, but since President Xi Jinping took office six years ago the government has tightened restrictions on religions seen as a challenge to the authority of the ruling Communist Party.

Churches across China have faced new waves of harassment and pressure to register since a new set of regulations to govern religious affairs in China came into effect in February and heightened punishments for unofficial churches.

In July, more than 30 of Beijing’s hundreds of underground Protestant churches took the rare step of releasing a joint statement complaining of “unceasing interference” and the “assault and obstruction” of regular activities of believers since the new regulations came into effect.

China’s Christian believers are split between those who attend unofficial “house” or “underground” churches and those who attend government-sanctioned places of worship.

Churchgoers were also given a notice from the district religious affairs bureau saying that the “great masses of believer must respect the rules and regulations and attend events in legally registered places of religious activity”.

Zion’s attendees were also given pamphlets of officially sanctioned churches that they might attend instead.

But for many worshippers and pastors, such as Jin, accepting the oversight and ultimate authority of the Communist Party would be a betrayal of their faith.

“On this land, the only one we can trust in is God,” Jin said.

(Reporting by Christian Shepherd; Editing by Michael Perry)

Russia postpones bill making U.S. sanctions compliance a crime

FILE PHOTO: A general view shows the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, in Moscow, Russia January 20, 2017. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov/File Photo

By Polina Nikolskaya and Tom Balmforth

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russian lawmakers on Thursday voted to postpone the second reading of a bill being discussed in the lower house of parliament that would make it a crime to comply with Western sanctions on Russia.

The lower house said it would hold talks next week with businesses before proceeding further with discussion of the draft law, a day after business lobby groups on Wednesday publicly voiced opposition to it.

“We support postponing (discussion) for further consultations because of numerous appeals and insufficient legal preparation,” said Nikolai Kolomeytsev, a lawmaker for the Communist party, which often backs the Kremlin on important issues.

Russian lawmakers in a first reading on Tuesday approved a bill making it a crime punishable by up to four years in jail to refuse to supply services or do business with a Russian citizen, citing U.S. or other sanctions.

The Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs said in a statement on Wednesday that the bill creates risks of unreasonable criminal prosecution of Russian and foreign citizens, and could harm the investment climate.

Business representatives will be invited to discuss the bill with lawmakers next Wednesday.

“I think we can find a construction under which these fears can be removed. And then the law will pass without any fears and, generally speaking, we need it,” lawmaker Valery Gartung said on Thursday. He is a member of the Just Russia party which often allies itself with the Kremlin.

The bill is one of two items of legislation drawn up by lawmakers in response to the United States’ decision to impose sanctions on Russia last month.

Washington blacklisted some of Russia’s biggest companies and businessmen, striking at allies of President Vladimir Putin to punish Moscow for alleged meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and other “malign activities”.

Later on Thursday, lawmakers in a second reading approved the second item of legislation. The bill would give the government authority to ban trade in certain items with countries deemed to be unfriendly to Moscow.

Under the bill, the Russian president would decide which products would be affected by the restrictions, and any decision would be subject to approval from parliament.

The legislation also bars affected countries and those countries’ citizens from taking part in the privatization of Russian property.

The legislation has been diluted since it was first put forward. Lawmakers originally proposed restricting imports of U.S.-made software and farm goods, U.S. medicines that can be sourced elsewhere, and tobacco and alcohol.

The legislation must pass a third reading, before being approved by the upper house of parliament and signed by President Vladimir Putin.

(Reporting by Polina Nikolskaya; Writing by Tom Balmforth; Editing by Christian Lowe)

Taiwan president says does not exclude possibility of China attack

Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen speaks during the end-of-year news conference in Taipei, Taiwan December 29, 2017.

TAIPEI (Reuters) – Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen said that she does not exclude the possibility of China attacking the self-ruled island, amid heightened tensions between the two sides including an increasing number of Chinese military drills near Taiwan.

Beijing has taken an increasingly hostile stance toward Taiwan, which it considers a breakaway province, since the election two years ago of Tsai of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party.

China suspects Tsai wants to push for formal independence, a red line for Communist Party leaders in Beijing, though she has said she wants to maintain the status quo and is committed to ensuring peace.

In recent months, China has stepped up military drills around Taiwan, alarming Taipei. China says the exercises are routine, but that it will not tolerate any attempt by the island to declare independence.

“No one can exclude this possibility. We will need to see whether their policymakers are reasonable policymakers or not,” Tsai said in an interview on Taiwan television broadcast late on Monday, when asked whether China could attack Taiwan.

“When you consider it (Taiwan-China relationship) from a regional perspective, any reasonable policymaker will have to very carefully deliberate as to whether launching war is an option,” Tsai said.

“When our government faces resistance and pressure from China, we will find our method to resist this. This is very important,” she added.

“In terms of China circulating around Taiwan or carrying out other military activities, our military is carefully following every action and movement in the scope of its monitoring,” Tsai said. “Our military is very confident to face these situations.”

China considers proudly democratic Taiwan to be its sacred territory and has never renounced the use of force to bring it under Chinese control.

Taiwan and China have also traded accusations this month about China’s opening of new civilian aviation routes close to Taiwan-controlled islands in the Taiwan Strait.

Although China has cut off a formal dialogue mechanism with Taiwan, Tsai acknowledged that both sides currently have a method for communications to avoid misunderstanding.

Taiwan has been pressing for the United States, its main source of arms, to provide more advanced equipment, but has also been trying to bolster its own weapons programs, to avoid what Tsai termed “certain political difficulties” that come with buying weapons overseas in the teeth of Chinese opposition.

Tsai said she believed one day Taiwan would be able to produce its own submarines, an item Taipei has long pressed for to face China’s navy.

China’s Taiwan Affairs Office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Tsai’s remarks.

(Reporting by Jess Macy Yu; Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in BEIJING; Editing by Nick Macfie)