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Hong Kong's leader Carrie Lam on Tuesday called on the territory's citizens to back proposed security laws by China that many in the territory fear would spell the end to their autonomy and civil rights.
''What we need is for the majority of Hong Kong to agree with the legislation," Lam said during a press conference.
"We are a very free society, so for the time being people have the freedom to say whatever they want to say," she said, in an apparent attempt to assuage fears that the law would side-step Hong Kong's own legislature and directly impose measures to stifle protest and free speech.
She also appeared to signal that once the draft law had passed, demonstrations like those that swept Hong Kong last year could be deemed illegal.
"If there is objection, we would deal with illegal opposition acts in accordance with law and will not back down," Lam added.
Her comments followed protests in the city over the weekend, as thousands clashed with police and were met with tear gas and water cannons. Police said those demonstrating broke social distancing rules in place due to the coronavirus and took part in unauthorized assemblies.
Last week, Chinese officials unveiled proposed legislation during China's annual national political convention that they said would tackle secession, subversion and terrorist activities. Parts of the bill, which Lam said would safeguard national security, are expected to be passed on Thursday, and represent a major turning point in the country's relationship with Hong Kong.
The territory has enjoyed a unique government structure since it was handed to China by Britain in 1997, enjoying a high-degree of autonomy with a free press and independent judiciary.
The draft legislation will be voted on by Chinese lawmakers this week, and likely pass, before progressing for further deliberation among party leaders in the NPC’s Standing Committee in June.
The bold move sent a chill through financial markets and drew a swift rebuke from foreign governments and international human rights groups, who fear it could lead to increased surveillance and censorship in Hong Kong.
China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi dismissed other countries' complaints on Sunday as "meddling," stating that the proposed laws would not harm Hong Kong autonomy or foreign investors.
"It does not affect the rights and freedoms enjoyed by Hong Kong residents. There is no need for concern," Yi said.
Adding that Hong Kong had become a "pressing priority" for China's leaders and that the security laws would only target a "narrow category of acts."
He kept it vague defining the acts as those that would "seriously jeopardize national security."
Lam echoed his line, stating that Hong Kong's "vibrancy and core values ... the various rights and freedoms enjoyed by people, will continue to be there.''
Concerns have also been raised by Joshua Wong, a leader of the territory's pro-democracy movement, and others, about the possibility of a Chinese security force on the ground in Hong Kong. Lam dismissed such claims as "imagination" and said those concerned needed to wait for the details of the proposed legislation.
Beijing has not yet outlined the practical implementation of the law.
China's military officers, stationed in the country's Hong Kong garrison, have the determination and ability to safeguard China's national sovereignty and security, the garrison's commander Chen Daoxiang, said in an interview with Chinese state television on Tuesday.
Chen said the garrison firmly supported the Chinese parliament's Hong Kong security laws.
A blog published by Hong Kong's Secretary of Justice Teresa Cheng, on Tuesday, also outlined that China had the legal power and authority to pass the legislation. And that such laws would be "in compliance with the 'one country, two systems' principle."
Hong Kong police said they arrested more than 180 people on Sunday during protests. Adding that "rioters smashed and broke traffic lights," and had "blocked multiple roads."
More protests have been called for this week.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a business federation, said it was "deeply concerned" by China’s draft security law and potential to "undermine" Hong Kong's unique model.
"It would be a serious mistake on many levels to jeopardize Hong Kong’s special status, which is fundamental to its role as an attractive investment destination and international financial hub," the trade body said.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has also criticized the proposed security laws and lashed out at China's wider handling of the coronavirus. China, in an intensifying war of words continued its anti-Pompeo rhetoric.
Reuters contributed to this report.