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Hong Kong Police Fire Tear Gas As Thousands Protest Security Measure

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Thousands of protesters were on the streets of Hong Kong over the weekend.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Singing in non-English language).

GREENE: They were chanting. They sang a protest anthem, trying to protect Hong Kong's autonomy. This comes as Beijing is debating a new law that could end, once and for all, the limited autonomy Hong Kong was supposed to enjoy even under Chinese rule. And let's talk about this first with NPR's Emily Feng, who is in Beijing. Hi, Emily.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Hey, David.

GREENE: Can you just start by talking about the protest movement in Hong Kong? I mean, it's been going like a year now, right? How is it sustained?

FENG: Protests have come back. They had faded away a little bit because of the novel coronavirus. But although they're back, they're smaller. Yesterday's march had only a few thousand people turn up. And you could sense some of the fatigue that had set in over the last year of protests. Previous marches, for example, had attracted tens of thousands of people. Part of the reason why there were smaller numbers was that there wasn't much notice given about the march.

But also, you can see people saying now that protests are more dangerous. Police have been very aggressive in detaining people, arresting veteran activists. But people also feel like protests are a little bit too late, that protests are ineffective. Here's Kelvin Lam. He's a district councilor and part of the pro-democracy faction, which won in a landslide local election last year.

KELVIN LAM: The reaction from residents is quite pessimistic. A lot of them were not in a fighting mood. I can view it. I can feel that people are thinking about leaving Hong Kong now because they also call this an end game or the beginning of the end.

FENG: Though, Lam has not given up hope. He's staying. He's campaigning in September legislative elections. And some protesters did say they stayed home this time because they're waiting for bigger June protests.

GREENE: All right. Well, tell us about this law. Beijing is describing it as a national security law it wants to impose. Why are residents of Hong Kong so concerned about it?

FENG: Well, based on the broad outline that we've been able to see so far, the law would criminalize four types of very broad behavior - secession, subversion of state power, foreign interference and terrorism. And it's so sweeping that it could end the limited autonomy that Hong Kong enjoys. Beijing, of course, argues that this law is needed because of violent protesters and what it calls terrorists. And today, China's legislature is discussing this law. It will pass a motion to draft this law on Thursday. And that law will be passed, likely, in June.

GREENE: But doesn't Hong Kong have its own government? I mean, can Beijing simply declare a national security law and implement there?

FENG: It's not totally clear that it can. Hong Kong has a treaty that's supposed to protect its autonomy until 2047. Hong Kong also has its own constitution. So questions of whether this national security law might supersede Hong Kong's own constitution have come up. And Hong Kong has decades of its own legal precedent that protects civil liberties. So it's unclear whether a law passed by Beijing could be litigated in a Hong Kong court. Ultimately, though, Beijing decides about whether a law is constitutional or not. And it will rule in its own favor.

GREENE: That is NPR's Emily Feng in Beijing. Emily, thanks so much. We really appreciate it.

FENG: Thanks, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Hey, thanks for reading.
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