Biden offers temporary ‘safe haven’ to Hong Kong residents in U.S

By Michael Martina

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -President Joe Biden on Thursday offered temporary “safe haven” to Hong Kong residents in the United States, allowing potentially thousands of people to extend their stay in the country in response to Beijing’s crackdown on democracy in the Chinese territory.

In a signed memo, Biden directed the Department of Homeland Security to implement a “deferral of removal” for up to 18 months for Hong Kong residents currently in the United States, citing “compelling foreign policy reasons”.

“Over the last year, the PRC has continued its assault on Hong Kong’s autonomy, undermining its remaining democratic processes and institutions, imposing limits on academic freedom, and cracking down on freedom of the press,” Biden said in the memo, using the acronym for the People’s Republic of China.

“Offering safe haven for Hong Kong residents who have been deprived of their guaranteed freedoms in Hong Kong furthers United States interests in the region. The United States will not waver in our support of people in Hong Kong,” Biden said.

The vast majority of Hong Kong residents currently in the United States are expected to be eligible for the program, according to a senior administration official, but some legal conditions apply, such as individuals not having been convicted of felonies.

The White House said in a statement that the move made clear the United States “will not stand idly by as the PRC breaks its promises to Hong Kong and to the international community.”

Those eligible may also seek employment authorization in the United States, Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas said in a statement.

The measure is the latest in a series of actions Biden has taken to address what his administration says is the erosion of rule of law in the former British colony, which returned to Beijing’s control in 1997.

The U.S. government in July applied more sanctions on Chinese officials in Hong Kong, and issued an updated business advisory warning companies of risks of operating under the national security law, which China implemented last year to criminalize what it considers subversion, secessionism, terrorism or collusion with foreign forces.

Critics say the law facilitates a crackdown on pro-democracy activists and a free press in the territory, which Beijing had agreed to allow to operate under considerable political autonomy for 50 years after it regained control.

China retaliated against the U.S. actions last month with its own sanctions on American individuals, including former U.S. commerce secretary Wilbur Ross.

U.S. lawmakers have sought legislation that would make it easier for people from Hong Kong fearing persecution after joining protests against China to obtain U.S. refugee status, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said the United States should accept people fleeing the Hong Kong crackdown.

(Reporting by Michael Martina; editing by Gerry Doyle and Jonathan Oatis)

In ‘frank’ talks, China accuses U.S. of creating ‘imaginary enemy’

By Yew Lun Tian and Tony Munroe

BEIJING (Reuters) -A top Chinese diplomat took a confrontational tone on Monday in rare high-level talks with the United States, accusing it of creating an “imaginary enemy” to divert attention from domestic problems and suppress China.

Amid worsening relations between the world’s two largest economies, Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, the second-ranking U.S. diplomat, arrived on Sunday for face-to-face meetings in the northern city of Tianjin that the U.S. State Department described as “frank and open.”

No specific outcomes were agreed and the prospect of a meeting between U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping was not discussed, senior U.S. administration officials said following talks that lasted about four hours.

China seized the early narrative, with state media reporting on confrontational remarks by Vice Foreign Minister Xie Feng soon after the session began, in echoes of a similarly combative opening by senior Chinese officials during high-level talks in March in Alaska.

Foreign media were kept at a distance from the site of the talks, held outside of Beijing due to COVID-19 protocols, but Chinese media were permitted on the premises.

“The United States wants to reignite the sense of national purpose by establishing China as an ‘imaginary enemy’,” Xie was quoted as saying while the talks were underway.

The United States had mobilized its government and society to suppress China, he added.

“As if once China’s development is suppressed, U.S. domestic and external problems will be resolved, and America will be great again, and America’s hegemony can be continued.”

Sherman laid out U.S. concerns over China’s actions on issues ranging from Hong Kong and Xinjiang to Tibet and cyber attacks, senior administration officials said, adding that China should not approach areas of global concern, such as climate and Afghanistan, on a transactional basis.

Sherman, who also met with State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi, raised concerns including over what Washington sees as China’s unwillingness to cooperate with the World Health Organization on a second phase investigation of the origins of COVID-19, and foreign media access in China.

“The Deputy Secretary raised concerns in private – as we have in public – about a range of PRC actions that run counter to our values and interests and those of our allies and partners, and that undermine the international rules-based order,” the State Department said in a statement.

“It is important for the United States and China to discuss areas where we disagree so that we understand one another’s position, and so that we are clear about where each side is coming from,” a senior administration official said.

“Reaching agreement or specific outcomes was not the purpose of today’s conversations,” a senior U.S. official said.

PROTOCOL WRANGLE

Sherman’s China visit was added late to an Asian itinerary that included stops in Japan, South Korea and Mongolia amid wrangling over protocol between Beijing and Washington.

On Saturday, Wang had warned that China would not accept the United States taking a “superior” position in the relationship, a day after China unveiled sanctions on former U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and others.

Relations between Beijing and Washington deteriorated sharply under former U.S. President Donald Trump, and the Biden administration has maintained pressure on China in a stance that enjoys bipartisan support but threatens to deepen mistrust.

“When both countries see each other as an enemy, the danger is that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy,” said Cheng Xiaohe, a professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing.

Monday’s talks came amid frayed relations between Beijing and Washington that have worsened in the months since an initial diplomatic meeting in March in Anchorage, the first under the Biden administration.

At the Alaska meeting, Chinese officials, including Wang, railed against the state of U.S. democracy, while U.S. officials accused the Chinese side of grandstanding.

(Reporting by Yew Lun Tian, Cate Cadell and Tony Munroe; Editing by Lincoln Feast, Clarence Fernandez and Giles Elgood)

U.S. sanctions Chinese officials over Hong Kong democracy crackdown

By Michael Martina and David Brunnstrom

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The United States imposed sanctions on Friday on seven Chinese officials over Beijing’s crackdown on democracy in Hong Kong, Washington’s latest effort to hold China accountable for what it calls an erosion of rule of law in the former British colony.

The sanctions, posted by the U.S. Treasury Department, target individuals from China’s Hong Kong liaison office, used by Beijing to orchestrate its policies in the Chinese territory.

The seven people added to Treasury’s “specially designated nationals” list were Chen Dong, He Jing, Lu Xinning, Qiu Hong, Tan Tienui, Yang Jianping, and Yin Zonghua, all deputy directors at the liaison office according to online bios.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that Chinese officials over the past year had “systematically undermined” Hong Kong’s democratic institutions, delayed elections, disqualified elected lawmakers from office, and arrested thousands for disagreeing with government policies.

“In the face of Beijing’s decisions over the past year that have stifled the democratic aspirations of people in Hong Kong, we are taking action. Today we send a clear message that the United States resolutely stands with Hong Kongers,” Blinken said in a statement.

The Treasury Department referred to a separate updated business advisory issued jointly with the departments of State, Commerce, and Homeland Security that highlighted U.S. government concerns about the impact on international companies of Hong Kong’s national security law.

Critics say Beijing implemented that law last year to facilitate a crackdown on pro-democracy activists and a free press.

The advisory said companies face risks associated with electronic surveillance without warrants and the surrender of corporate and customer data to authorities, adding that individuals and businesses should be aware of the potential consequences of engaging with sanctioned individuals or entities.

The actions were announced just over a year after former President Donald Trump ordered an end to Hong Kong’s special status under U.S. law to punish China for what he called “oppressive actions” against the territory.

The United States has already imposed sanctions on other senior officials, including Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam and senior police officers, for their roles in curtailing political freedoms in the territory.

BROKEN COMMITMENT

President Joe Biden said at a news conference on Thursday that the Chinese government had broken its commitment on how it would deal with Hong Kong since it returned to Chinese control in 1997.

China had promised universal suffrage as an ultimate goal for Hong Kong in its mini-constitution, the Basic Law, which also states the city has wide-ranging autonomy from Beijing.

Since China imposed the national security law to criminalize what it considers subversion, secessionism, terrorism or collusion with foreign forces, most pro-democracy activists and politicians have found themselves ensnared by it or arrested for other reasons.

Apple Daily, Hong Kong’s most vocal pro-democracy newspaper, was forced to end a 26-year run in June amid the crackdown that froze the company’s funds.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said at a regular news conference in Beijing before the actions were formally announced that the United States should stop interfering in Hong Kong, and that China would make a “resolute, strong response.”

A source told Reuters on Thursday that the White House was also reviewing a possible executive order to facilitate immigration from Hong Kong, but that it was still not certain to be implemented.

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman is preparing a visit to Japan, South Korea and Mongolia next week. The State Department’s announcement of her trip made no mention of any stop in China, which had been anticipated in foreign policy circles and reported in some media.

A senior State Department official told reporters on Friday that Washington was still in talks with Beijing over whether Sherman would visit China.

The U.S. government on Tuesday also strengthened warnings to businesses about the growing risks of having supply chain and investment links to China’s Xinjiang region, citing forced labor and human rights abuses there, which Beijing has denied.

(Reporting by Michael Martina, David Brunnstrom, Doina Chiacu, Humeyra Pamuk, and David Shepardson; Editing by Paul Simao)

China’s attacks on ‘foreign forces’ threaten Hong Kong’s global standing -top U.S. envoy

By Greg Torode, Anne Marie Roantree and James Pomfret

HONG KONG (Reuters) -The top U.S. diplomat in Hong Kong said the imposition of a new national security law had created an “atmosphere of coercion” that threatens both the city’s freedoms and its standing as an international business hub.

In unusually strident remarks to Reuters this week, U.S. Consul-General Hanscom Smith called it “appalling” that Beijing’s influence had “vilified” routine diplomatic activities such as meeting local activists, part of a government crackdown on foreign forces that was “casting a pall over the city”.

Smith’s remarks highlight deepening concerns over Hong Kong’s sharply deteriorating freedoms among many officials in the administration of President Joe Biden one year after China’s parliament imposed the law. Critics of the legislation say the law has crushed the city’s democratic opposition, civil society and Western-style freedoms.

The foreign forces issue is at the heart of the crimes of “collusion” with foreign countries or “external elements” detailed in Article 29 of the security law, scholars say.

Article 29 outlaws a range of direct or indirect links with a “foreign country or an institution, organization or individual” outside greater China, covering offences from the stealing of secrets and waging war to engaging in “hostile activities” and “provoking hatred.” They can be punished by up to life in prison.

“People … don’t know where the red lines are, and it creates an atmosphere that’s not just bad for fundamental freedoms, it’s bad for business,” Smith said.

“You can’t have it both ways,” he added. “You can’t purport to be this global hub and at the same time invoke this kind of propaganda language criticizing foreigners.”

Smith is a career U.S. foreign service officer who has deep experience in China and the wider region, serving in Shanghai, Beijing and Taiwan before arriving in Hong Kong in July 2019. He made his comments in an interview at the U.S. diplomatic mission in Hong Kong on Wednesday after Reuters sought the consulate’s views on the impact of the national security law.

In a response to Reuters, Hong Kong’s Security Bureau said that “normal interactions and activities” were protected, and blamed external elements for interfering in the city during the protests that engulfed Hong Kong in 2019.

“There are indications in investigations and intelligence that foreign intervention was rampant with money, supplies and other forms of support,” a representative said. He did not to identify specific individuals or groups.

Government adviser and former security chief Regina Ip told Reuters it was only “China haters” who had reason to worry about falling afoul of the law.

“There must be criminal intent, not just casual chat,” she said.

Smith’s comments come as other envoys, business people and activists have told Reuters of the chilling effect on their relationships and connections across China’s most international city.

Private investigators say demand is surging among law firms, hedge funds and other businesses for security sweeps of offices and communications for surveillance tools, while diplomats describe discreet meetings with opposition figures, academics and clergy.

Fourteen Asian and Western diplomats who spoke to Reuters for this story said they were alarmed at attempts by Hong Kong prosecutors to treat links between local politicians and foreign envoys as potential national security threats.

In April, a judge cited emails from the U.S. mission to former democratic legislator Jeremy Tam as a reason to deny him bail on a charge of conspiracy to commit subversion. Tam, one of 47 pro-democracy politicians charged, is in jail awaiting trial; his lawyer did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

“It’s appalling that people would take a routine interaction with a foreign government representative and attribute something sinister to it,” Smith said, adding that the consulate did not want to put anyone in an “awkward situation.”

In the latest ratcheting up of tensions with Western nations, Hong Kong on Friday slammed a U.K. government report that said Beijing was using the security law to “drastically curtail freedoms” in the city.

Hong Kong authorities also this week lambasted the European Union for denouncing Hong Kong’s recent overhaul of its political system.

‘TOUGH CASES’ LOOM

Although local officials said last year the security law would only affect a “tiny minority” of people, more than 100 have been arrested under the law, which has affected education, media, civil society and religious freedoms among other areas, according to those interviewed for this story.

Some have raised concerns that the provisions would hurt the business community, a suggestion Ip dismissed.

“I think they have nothing to worry about unless they are bent on using external forces to harm Hong Kong,” Ip said. “I speak to a lot of businessmen who are very bullish about the economic situation.”

Retired judges familiar with cases such as Jeremy Tam’s said they were shocked at the broad use of foreign connections by prosecutors. One told Reuters he did not see how that approach would be sustainable, as the government accredits diplomats, whose job is to meet people, including politicians.

Hong Kong’s judiciary said it would not comment on individual cases.

Smith said Hong Kong’s growing atmosphere of “fear, coercion and uncertainty” put the special administrative region’s future in jeopardy.

“It’s been very distressing to see this relentless onslaught on Hong Kong’s freedoms and back-tracking on the commitment that was made to preserve Hong Kong’s autonomy,” he said.

(Reporting By Greg Torode, Anne Marie Roantree and James Pomfret. Additional reporting by Clare Jim. Editing by Gerry Doyle)

Hong Kong locks down Tiananmen vigil park amid tight security, arrests organizer

By Clare Jim and Scott Murdoch

HONG KONG (Reuters) -Police blocked off a Hong Kong park to prevent people gathering to commemorate the anniversary of China’s 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown on Friday and arrested the planned vigil’s organizer.

The ban on the vigil came amid growing concern in the pro-democracy movement and internationally about the suppression of the semi-autonomous city’s traditional freedoms, notably a national security law imposed by Beijing last year.

The annual June 4 vigil is usually held in the former British colony’s Victoria Park, with people gathering to light candles for the pro-democracy demonstrators killed by Chinese troops in Beijing 32 years ago.

This year, with thousands of police deployed across the city, some marked the anniversary in churches or at home amid fears of being arrested.

In the working class district of Mong Kok, minor scuffles broke out and police arrested one person. As night fell, police cleared people from around Victoria Park as they walked with their phone lights on.

“Being able to have a memory is a basic human right. Taking that away is beyond anyone’s authority,” District Councilor Derek Chu told Reuters. “We need to remember those people who have been sacrificed for democracy in the past.”

Early on Friday, police arrested Chow Hang Tung, vice-chairwoman of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, for promoting an unauthorized assembly.

“She only wanted to go to Victoria Park, light a candle and commemorate,” Chiu Yan Loy, executive member of the Alliance, told Reuters.

He said believed her arrest was meant to strike fear into those planning to attend.

Chow told Reuters earlier this week that June 4 was a test for Hong Kong “of whether we can defend our bottom line of morality”.

The Alliance’s chairman, Lee Cheuk-yan, is in jail over an illegal assembly.

Authorities warned of more arrests and said that anyone who took part in an unauthorized assembly could face up to five years in jail.

Police cordoned off most of the downtown park, including football pitches and basketball courts. They also conducted stop-and-search checks across the city, with officers posted at three cross-harbour tunnels.

The heightened vigilance from authorities was a marked departure from Hong Kong’s freedoms of speech and assembly, bringing the global financial hub closer in line with mainland China’s strict controls on society, activists say.

Police did not say whether commemorating Tiananmen would breach the new national security law.

“From the bottom of my heart, I must say I believe Hong Kong is still a very safe and free city,” senior superintendent Liauw Ka-kei told reporters, saying police had no option but to enforce the law.

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam has only said that citizens must respect the law, as well as the Communist Party, which this year celebrates its 100th anniversary. June 4 commemorations are banned in mainland China.

China has never provided a full account of the 1989 violence in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. The death toll given by officials days later was about 300, most of them soldiers, but rights groups and witnesses say thousands of people may have perished.

CANDLES AT CHURCHES

At the United States consulate and European Union office in Hong Kong, candles flickered at windows throughout the buildings. Seven churches that arranged to hold memorial masses were full, according to their Facebook pages, with some of the congregation holding white flowers and lighting candles.

One church on Hong Kong island quickly reached its 30% capacity set by coronavirus restrictions and opened up its courtyard to accommodate more people.

Jailed activist Jimmy Sham said via his Facebook page he planned to “light a cigarette at 8pm”.

“We do not see the hope of democracy and freedom in a leader, a group, or a ceremony. Every one of us is the hope of democracy and freedom,” he said.

Last year, thousands in Hong Kong defied the ban on marking the Tiananmen anniversary.

Prominent democracy activist Joshua Wong received a 10-month prison sentence last month for participating in the 2020 vigil, while three others got four-to six-month sentences. Twenty more are due in court on June 11 on similar charges.

(Additional reporting by Jessie Pang, James Pomfret, Pak Yiu and Scott Murdoch and Hong Kong newsroom; Writing by Marius Zaharia and Anne Marie Roantree; Editing by Robert Birsel, Mark Heinrich and Angus MacSwan)

Hong Kong passes sweeping pro-China election rules, reduces public’s voting power

By Sharon Abratique

HONG KONG (Reuters) -Hong Kong’s legislature approved the biggest overhaul of its political system in the quarter century since British rule on Thursday, in a decisive step to assert Beijing’s authority over the autonomous city.

The move was quickly denounced by the United States, which accused China of undermining Hong Kong’s democratic institutions and said decreasing electoral representation of residents of the territory would not foster long-term stability.

The changes will reduce the proportion of seats in the legislature that are filled by direct elections from half to less than a quarter. A new body will vet candidates and bar those deemed insufficiently patriotic towards China from standing.

“These 600-or-so pages of the legislation come down to just a few words: patriots ruling Hong Kong,” said Peter Shiu, a pro-Beijing lawmaker.

Most of the changes were announced by China in March, though Hong Kong authorities later contributed further details, such as redrawing constituency boundaries and criminalizing calls for ballots to be left blank.

The measures were passed with 40 votes in favor and two against. The pro-Beijing government has faced no opposition in the legislature since last year, when China disqualified some pro-democracy lawmakers and others resigned in protest.

Chinese authorities have said the electoral shake-up is aimed at getting rid of “loopholes and deficiencies” that threatened national security during anti-government unrest in 2019 and ensure only “patriots” run the city.

The legislature will increase in size to 90 seats from 70. The number of seats filled by direct election will decrease to 20 from 35. Forty seats will be filled by an election committee, which is also responsible for choosing the chief executive.

The new vetting committee empowered to disqualify candidates will work with national security authorities to ensure those standing are loyal to Beijing.

In a statement, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken accused China of continuing to undermine democratic institutions in Hong Kong and called on Beijing and Hong Kong authorities to release and drop charges against everyone charged under the national security law.

Blinken said altering the composition of the legislature “severely constrains people in Hong Kong from meaningfully participating in their own governance and having their voices heard.”

“Decreasing Hong Kong  residents’ electoral representation will  not  foster long-term political and social stability for Hong Kong,” he added.

Elections for the election committee are set for Sept. 19, and for the legislature three months later. The committee will choose a chief executive on March 27, 2022.

Chief executive Carrie Lam has not made clear whether she will seek re-election. In 2019 she faced the largest and most violent anti-government protests since the handover from British rule in 1997, after proposing a bill to allow extraditions to mainland China.

China had promised universal suffrage as an ultimate goal for Hong Kong in its mini-constitution, the Basic Law, which also states the city has wide-ranging autonomy from Beijing.

Democracy campaigners and Western countries say the political overhaul moves the city in the opposite direction, leaving the democratic opposition with the most limited space it has had since the handover.

Since China imposed a national security law in 2020 to criminalize what it considers subversion, secessionism, terrorism or collusion with foreign forces, most pro-democracy activists and politicians have found themselves ensnared by it or arrested for other reasons.

(Writing by Marius Zaharia; additional reporting by Daphne Psaledakis and David Brunnstrom in Washington; Editing by Peter Graff and Lisa Shumaker)

Hong Kong legislators pass ‘patriotic’ oath law

HONG KONG (Reuters) – A new law that tightens patriotic loyalty tests for Hong Kong politicians will take effect later this month after being passed by the city’s legislature on Wednesday, local media reported.

The law is widely expected to further stifle democratic opposition in the global financial hub, extending oath-taking requirements to community level district councils that are dominated by pro-democracy politicians following a landslide win in November 2019.

Publicly-funded broadcaster RTHK reported that more than 20 district councilors have resigned in recent months, some because they were not willing to take the oath and others after being detained under a sweeping national security law imposed on the city by China’s parliament last June.

The new law allows the city’s Secretary for Justice to launch action against a politician or official who is deemed to have violated an oath under a “negative list” that proscribes a broad range of unpatriotic acts, from insulting the flag to endangering national security.

Those accused would be immediately suspended from office and, upon a court conviction, ousted and then barred from standing for an election for five years.

Lawyers, academics and diplomats have told Reuters they fear the city’s independent judges could also find themselves ensnared by the vague terms of the law.

The Hong Kong government launched the bill in February, a day after a senior official in China’s cabinet said provisions should be made to ensure only “patriots” ran the city.

Hong Kong’s Secretary for Mainland and Constitutional Affairs Erick Tsang said at the time that officials and politicians “cannot say that you are patriotic but you do not love the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party or you do not respect it – this does not make sense.”

“Patriotism is holistic love,” he added.

(Reporting By Greg Torode and Clare Jim in Hong Kong; Editing by Timothy Heritage)

Vaccinated Hong Kong residents ready to party till 2 a.m. curfew as bars reopen

By Farah Master and Aleksander Solum

HONG KONG (Reuters) -In Hong Kong’s famed party zone Lan Kwai Fong, dormant bars and clubs opened to serve customers again, but only for those who have had at least one vaccine shot – one of the few examples globally of offering greater freedom for the vaccinated. Bar staff need to have gotten at least one coronavirus vaccine dose too, and patrons must register with a government mobile tracking application as they enter.

“Before it was a dead city, now it has loosened a little and everyone is happier,” said Vanessa, a 25-year-old office worker who was visiting the popular bar district. The Chinese special administrative region has kept COVID-19 transmission largely under control. Hong Kong has recorded more than 11,700 coronavirus cases, far lower than other developed cities. The new rules come as authorities there try to encourage the city’s 7.5 million residents to get vaccinated; only about 12% have received their first dose. “The re-opening of bars and the extension of opening hours are incentives for people to receive the vaccination, while the most important thing … is to prevent the spread of the infection, should it hit us again,” said Professor Lau Chak Sing, head of department of Medicine at the University of Hong Kong (HKU). “In an ideal situation, one should complete the course of vaccination to ensure protection,” he said, adding that with Hong Kong’s adequate supply of vaccines, people eager to go to bars would complete both their first and second doses. Venues including nightclubs, karaoke lounges and bathhouses, can stay open until 2 a.m. from Thursday but must operate at half capacity, Sophia Chan, the city’s Health Secretary said. Bars can only seat two people per table.

COMPLEX RULES

Customers must scan the government’s app and show their vaccination record – stored electronically on their mobile phones – when they enter. Many residents have declined to use the app because of privacy concerns, choosing instead to write down their details. Restaurants can stay open until 2 a.m. and seat up to 8 people at a table, provided they have received both vaccine doses. But they must have a separate area for unvaccinated customers, and depending on whether staff have been vaccinated, might be required to close at 10 p.m. or midnight. The multi-tiered rules are tough to implement immediately, industry executives said, and many venues cannot open fully as they cannot force staff to get vaccinated. Allan Zeman, chairman of Lan Kwai Fong Group, a property owner and developer in the nightclub district, said that bar owners were desperate to reopen but that there remained a lot of apprehension among staff about vaccinations. “The restrictions will not be easy. Customers themselves need to have one vaccine, that in itself is very limiting,” he said, adding that the measures were a baby step forward and an experiment for both the government and the industry.

Ben Leung, president of Hong Kong’s Licensed Bar and Club Association, said only around 50% of the city’s 1280 bars would open on Thursday with others remaining closed until all their workers had received vaccinations.

Simon Wong, chief executive of LH Group, which operates dozens of restaurants and employs hundreds of staff, wrote on his Facebook page that the new arrangement was “so complicated”. Wong said his restaurants would only be able to seat 4 people per table and stay open until 10 p.m., as many staff did not want to get vaccinated. Hong Kong residents have been hesitant since the vaccination program began in February because of a lack of confidence in China’s Sinovac vaccine and fears of adverse reactions. Some residents have shown greater take-up for the vaccine offered by Germany’s BioNTech in the city but overall figures remain far below satisfactory, said the city’s leader, Carrie Lam.

(Additional reporting by Donny Kwok and Joyce Zhou ; Writing by Farah Master. Editing by Gerry Doyle and Toby Chopra)

Veteran Hong Kong democrats found guilty in landmark unlawful assembly case

By Jessie Pang and James Pomfret

HONG KONG (Reuters) – A Hong Kong court found seven prominent democrats guilty of unauthorized assembly charges, including 82-year-old barrister Martin Lee and media tycoon Jimmy Lai, 72, the latest blow to the city’s beleaguered democracy movement.

Lee, who helped launch the city’s largest opposition Democratic Party in the 1990’s and is often called the former British colony’s “father of democracy,” was accused of taking part in an unauthorized assembly on Aug. 18, 2019.

The silver-haired Lee and the others, all in their 60’s or older, sat impassively as district court judge Amanda Woodcock handed down her decision.

“I have found after trial the prosecution able to prove beyond reasonable doubt that all of the defendants together organized what amounted to an unauthorized assembly,” the district court judge said in the full written judgement.

They were also found guilty of knowingly participating in an unauthorized assembly.

Although Hong Kong’s mini-constitution guarantees the right to peaceful assembly, Woodcock added, “restrictions are imposed, including those for preserving public safety and public order, and protecting the rights of others.”

Sentencing will come on April 16, with some legal experts expecting jail terms of 12 to 18 months. The maximum possible sentence is five years.

The other defendants included prominent barrister Margaret Ng, 73; and veteran democrats Lee Cheuk-yan, 64; Albert Ho, 69; Leung Kwok-hung, 65; and Cyd Ho, 66. Two others, Au Nok-hin and Leung Yiu-chung, 67, had earlier pleaded guilty.

A small group of supporters displayed banners outside the West Kowloon court building, including one that read “Oppose Political Persecution”.

“If we are sentenced to jail in the future for this case … it’s our badge of honor to be jailed for walking with the people of Hong Kong,” said Lee Cheuk-yan, a former lawmaker who has been a pro-democracy activist since the late 1970’s.

The judge rejected a request by the prosecution to keep the nine in custody, and granted them bail pending sentencing.

During the trial, defense lawyers argued that freedom of assembly is a constitutional right in Hong Kong, and noted that police had approved the peaceful demonstration in the city’s downtown Victoria Park, which grew into an unauthorized march as numbers swelled into the hundreds of thousands.

The prosecution argued that the freedom of assembly isn’t absolute in Hong Kong.

Critics, including Western governments, have condemned the arrests of Lee and other democrats amid the ongoing crackdown. Forty-seven other high-profile democratic campaigners are facing subversion charges under the national security law, and have mostly been denied bail and are being held in detention.

The European Union office in Hong Kong said the ongoing prosecutions of democrats are of “great concern” and it would continue to monitor developments.

The United States said on Wednesday that Hong Kong does not warrant preferential treatment under the Hong Kong Policy Act, a law that had allowed Washington to maintain a special relationship with the city.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a news release that China had “severely undermined the rights and freedoms of people in Hong Kong,” through arbitrary arrests and politically motivated prosecutions as well as “pressure on judicial independence and academic and press freedoms.”

The 2019 pro-democracy protests were spurred by Beijing’s tightening squeeze on wide-ranging freedoms promised to Hong Kong upon its return to Chinese rule in 1997, and plunged the semi-autonomous city into its biggest crisis since the handover.

Beijing has since imposed a sweeping national security law, punishing anything it deems as secession, subversion, terrorism or collusion with foreign forces with up to life in prison.

Since the law’s promulgation, the government has sought to crush the opposition movement, barred protests and curbed political expression, and overhauled the city’s electoral system to ensure only pro-China “patriots” govern Hong Kong.

Hong Kong and Chinese authorities, however, say the security law and electoral reforms are needed to restore stability and to resolve “deep-seated” problems, and that human rights will be safeguarded.

(Reporting by Jessie Pang and James Pomfret; Editing by Gerry Doyle and Jonathan Oatis)

China formalizes sweeping electoral shake-up for Hong Kong, demands loyalty

By Yew Lun Tian and Clare Jim

BEIJING/HONG KONG (Reuters) – China finalized a sweeping overhaul of Hong Kong’s electoral system on Tuesday, drastically curbing democratic representation in the city as authorities seek to ensure “patriots” rule the global financial hub.

The measures are part of Beijing’s efforts to consolidate its increasingly authoritarian grip over its freest city following the imposition of a national security law in June, which critics see as a tool to crush dissent.

The changes would see the number of directly elected representatives fall and the number of Beijing-approved officials rise in an expanded legislature, Xinhua news agency reported.

As part of the shake-up, a powerful new vetting committee will monitor candidates for public office and work with national security authorities to ensure they are loyal to Beijing.

Maria Tam, a senior Hong Kong politician who works with China’s parliament on matters relating to Hong Kong’s mini-constitution told Reuters the Committee for Safeguarding National Security would help the new vetting committee to “understand the background of all of the candidates, specifically whether they had complied with the national security law.”

Beijing imposed the contentious security legislation on Hong Kong in June, punishing what it broadly defines as subversion, secession, collusion with foreign forces and terrorism with up to life in jail.

Chinese authorities have said the electoral shake-up is aimed at getting rid of “loopholes and deficiencies” that threatened national security during anti-government unrest in 2019 and to ensure only “patriots” run the city.

The measures are the most significant overhaul of Hong Kong’s political structure since it returned to Chinese rule in 1997 and alter the size and composition of the legislature and electoral committee in favor of pro-Beijing figures.

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam and several city officials, including the Secretary for Justice, all issued separate statements praising China’s move.

“I firmly believe that by improving the electoral system and implementing ‘patriots administering Hong Kong’, the excessive politicization in society and the internal rift that has torn Hong Kong apart can be effectively mitigated,” Lam said.

Speaking at a press conference later, Lam said the changes would be submitted to the Legislative Council by mid-April and expected to see them passed by the end of May.

Legislative Council elections, which were postponed in September with the government citing coronavirus, would be held in December, she added, while the city’s leadership election would be held in March, as planned.

UNOPPOSED

The number of directly elected representatives will drop to 20 from 35 and the size of the legislature increase to 90 seats from 70 currently, Xinhua said, while an election committee responsible for selecting the chief executive will increase from 1,200 members to 1,500.

The representation of 117 community-level district councilors in the election committee would be scrapped and the six district council seats in the Legislative Council will also go, according to Xinhua.

District councils are the city’s only fully democratic institution, and almost 90% of the 452 district seats are controlled by the democratic camp after a 2019 vote. They mostly deal with grassroots issues such as public transport links and garbage collection.

The electoral restructuring was endorsed unopposed by the National People’s Congress Standing Committee, at the apex of China’s legislature, Xinhua reported.

Beijing had promised universal suffrage as an ultimate goal for Hong Kong in its mini-constitution, the Basic Law, which also guarantees the city wide-ranging autonomy not seen in mainland China, including freedom of speech.

Critics say the changes move Hong Kong in the opposite direction, leaving the democratic opposition with the most limited space it has ever had since the handover, if any at all.

Since the security law was imposed, most pro-democracy activists and politicians have found themselves ensnared by it, or arrested for other reasons.

Some elected legislators have been disqualified, with authorities calling their oaths insincere, while scores of democracy activists have been driven into exile.

All legislature candidates, including direct elected seats, will also need nominations from each of the five subsectors in the election committee, according to Xinhua, making it more difficult for pro-democracy candidates to take part in the election.

“They want to increase the safety factor so that in the future, the democrats will not only get very limited seats, if they are not liked by Beijing, they won’t even be able to run in the election,” said Ivan Choy, a senior lecturer at Chinese University of Hong Kong’s department of government and public administration.

He expects the democratic candidates to get at most one-sixth, or around 16 seats, in LegCo after the reforms.

(Reporting by Yew Lun Tian in Beijing and Clare Jim in Hong Kong; Writing by Se Young Lee, Anne Marie Roantree and Farah Master; Editing by Lincoln Feast & Shri Navaratnam)