HONG KONG (AP) – The top American diplomat in Hong Kong said Monday that it is a â€œtragedyâ€ to use the semi-autonomous Chinese territoryâ€™s new national security law to chip away at â€œfundamental freedomsâ€ in the Asian financial hub and create an â€œatmosphere of coercion and self-censorship.â€
â€œUsing the national security law to erode fundamental freedoms and to create an atmosphere of coercion and self-censorship is a tragedy for Hong Kong,â€ Hanscom Smith, U.S. consul general to Hong Kong and Macau, told reporters. â€œHong Kong has been successful precisely because of its openness and weâ€™ll do everything we can to maintain that.”
The law, imposed last week following anti-government protests in Hong Kong last year, makes secessionist, subversive, or terrorist activities illegal, as well as foreign intervention in the cityâ€™s internal affairs. Any person taking part in activities such as shouting slogans or holding up banners and flags calling for the cityâ€™s independence is violating the law regardless of whether violence is used.
Critics see it as Beijingâ€™s boldest step yet to erase the legal firewall between the former British colony and the mainlandâ€™s authoritarian Communist Party system.
Since the law went into effect, the government has also specified that popular protest slogan â€œLiberate Hong Kong, revolution of our timeâ€ has separatist connotations and is thus criminalized.
In Hong Kongâ€™s public libraries, books by pro-democracy figures have been pulled from the shelves, including those authored by prominent pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong and politician Tanya Chan. The authority that runs the libraries said it was reviewing the books in light of the new legislation.
Many pro-democracy shops that publicly stood in solidarity with protesters have moved to remove pro-democracy sticky notes and artwork that adorned the walls of their stores, fearful that the content might violate the new law.
A 23-year-old man, Tong Ying-kit, has become the first person in Hong Kong to be charged under the new law, for allegedly driving a motorcycle into a group of policemen while bearing a flag with the â€œLiberate Hong Kong, revolution of our timeâ€ slogan.
Tong appeared in court Monday, facing charges of incitement to secession and terrorist activities. He was denied bail and remanded in custody.
Separately, pro-democracy activists Agnes Chow, Joshua Wong and Ivan Lam also appeared in court Monday over charges related to a protest last June. Chow pleaded guilty to inciting others to participate in an unlawful assembly, as well as to participating in an unauthorized assembly.
Wong, who was indicted on similar charges, pleaded not guilty. Lam, who was charged with inciting others to participate in an unlawful assembly, also pleaded not guilty. All three were released on bail.
The cases will move to trial and sentencing following a pretrial review for Wong and Lam, which is scheduled for August 5.
On Monday, a group of about 10 protesters gathered at a shopping mall in Hong Kongâ€™s Central business district, holding up signs calling for city leader Carrie Lam to step down, as well as reiterating protestersâ€™ five demands from the pro-democracy movement last year. The demands include an independent inquiry into the police and universal suffrage.
Others held up blank white pieces of paper as a sign of protest against political dissidence being suppressed in the city. About 20 riot police later entered the mall, detaining protesters holding up signs, although they did not appear to make any arrests.