HONG KONG (AP) — Hong Kong’s leader said Wednesday that residents of the southern Chinese city are obliged to reject threats to China’s sovereignty, in what appeared to be a veiled warning aimed at rising separatist sentiment.
Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s remarks came in a policy speech carefully calibrated to avoid touching on politically controversial topics.
She didn’t specifically mention simmering tensions over the Chinese-controlled city’s burgeoning independence movement or soccer fans booing the national anthem. Those issues are part of residents’ broader fears about Beijing’s tightening grip on the semiautonomous city and erosion of its distinctive Cantonese identity.
Lam, elected by a committee of mostly pro-Beijing Hong Kong elites earlier this year, told lawmakers that residents have “the obligation to say ‘no’ to any attempt to threaten our country’s sovereignty, security and development interests, as well as the duty to nurture our next generation into citizens with a sense of national identity.”
The Chinese central government’s recent passage of a law making it illegal to improperly use China’s national anthem, punishable by up to 15 days in prison, raised fears among pro-democracy activists and lawmakers that it could be used to undermine freedom of speech in Hong Kong.
It’s become common at soccer games for some fans to jeer the Chinese national anthem as a way to express their unhappiness with Beijing.
At an Asian Cup qualifying match between Hong Kong and Malaysia on Tuesday night, fans raucously expressed their opposition to the anthem, with many turning their backs when “March of the Volunteers” was played before the game. Some held up a banner calling for Hong Kong independence in bold white lettering.
Such heckling was “reasonable because Hong Kong people should be able to express their bad feeling or hate of China,” said Calvin Lau, a fan attending the game. “They do not have enough space or a suitable channel to express (their feelings) in their daily life.”
The new law still needs to be adopted in Hong Kong, and it’s unclear how it will be implemented in the city, which has a separate legal system from the mainland.
During a visit to Hong Kong earlier this year to oversee Lam’s inauguration, Chinese President Xi Jinping warned against separatist sentiment, saying it’s a “red line” that shouldn’t be crossed.
Lam spent the rest of her speech laying out plans to tackle the “increasingly grave challenges” Hong Kong faces, citing growing competition from other economies and protectionism. She said she wanted to boost growth by diversifying the Asian finance hub’s economy into high-tech and creative industries and detailed a blueprint for tackling housing and land supply shortages that have contributed to some of the world’s highest property costs. •