Monday, April 19, 2021

Hong Kong minister warns citizens against ‘oblivious’ criticism of China

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Hong Kong’s top legal official warned residents to steer clear of criticisms of the government that stray too far from the facts, as officials defend Beijing’s plan to overhaul the city’s elections.

Hong Kong Justice Secretary Teresa Cheng said in an interview on Tuesday that opinions were “no more than an utterance of no value” if the facts weren’t established. Cheng was answering a question about what kind of criticism would be legal in the former British colony as Beijing implements a range of legal changes including a national security law and the electoral overhaul.

“Some of the statements that are sometimes uttered, that we hear, are actually not based on facts, or perhaps oblivious of the facts that exist,” Cheng told Bloomberg Television. “And I think that is what one has to be very careful not to embark upon.”

Officials in Beijing and Hong Kong are fanning out to defend the most significant changes to the city’s political system since its return to Chinese rule in 1997. Chinese lawmakers are expected to approve a sweeping electoral overhaul later this week that will require future candidates for elected office to be “patriots” and secure nominations from a pro-Beijing committee.

The moves, including Beijing’s imposition of a national security law on Hong Kong outlawing speech deemed subversive or secessionist, have been criticized by the U.S. and U.K. as a violation of China’s treaty commitment to maintaining the city’s “high degree of autonomy.”

On Monday, a bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers, including Senators Ed Markey and Mitt Romney, called on the Biden administration to work with allies and partners to support the people of Hong Kong.

Cheng, who was among senior officials sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury in August on allegations of “undermining Hong Kong’s autonomy,” on Tuesday reiterated the government’s argument that the security law had restored stability. “Please look at the actual facts and then see what’s happening in Hong Kong,” she said in response to the lawmakers’ statement.

Hong Kong authorities have so far arrested 100 people on allegations of violating the security law, with most accused of participating in some form of political activity, such as displaying banners or posting in support of the city’s independence. The total includes 47 opposition figures charged last week with “conspiracy to commit subversion” over their aborted “35-plus” election campaign last year to win a majority on the Legislative Council and force Chief Executive Carrie Lam to resign by voting down her budget.

The electoral overhaul would go further by making it harder to for such opposition politicians to seek and win office, effectively ending the only open elections under Beijing’s rule. Lam said Monday that the proposal being drafted behind closed doors in Beijing would be locally enacted without the usual public consultation process.

“The political structure is no longer ensuring the governance of the — the efficacy of — of the whole administration into a proper efficient way that serves the people in Hong Kong,” Cheng said. “And it is for that reason that the National People’s Congress sees the pressing need for that to be taken.”

Cheng, who sits on the security committee established by the law, declined to explain why “35-plus” campaign constituted subversion, saying she couldn’t comment on specific cases. “We should move away from this topic and talk about other things, because we cannot talk about a case,” Cheng said.

She also rejected as “totally absurd” criticism that the national security law had undermined the independence of Hong Kong’s judiciary. “There is no threat on the judicial independence — and I say it loud and clear and with confidence,” Cheng said.

In December, the Communist Party’s People Daily newspaper published a commentary warning that the government could transfer media tycoon Jimmy Lai’s foreign collusion case to mainland courts after a decision to grant him bail. Lai was later sent back to jail after Hong Kong’s highest court affirmed a higher standards for releasing security law suspects before trial.

The security law lets Cheng issue certificates requiring some cases to be tried without a jury, a power that local media including the South China Morning Post say she exercised to prosecute an activist accused of driving a motorcycle into a group of police officers in July. Cheng said the power would be “exercised independently and fairly and without any interference” and that a three-judge panel would uphold defendants’ rights.

“One talks about ‘no jury’ as if it’s something that is such a big, worrying thing,” Cheng said. “We’re going to write down the reasons, and the, and the findings of fact and the legal basis upon which the conclusion of the verdict — be it convict or acquit — is going to be.”

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