Hong Kong's chief executive Carrie Lam on Wednesday warned that the government would act "fearlessly" against anyone advocating independence for the city under Chinese rule, as pro-democracy politicians protested ever-diminishing freedoms in the former British colony.
As Lam began her policy address speech to the city's Legislative Council (LegCo), four opposition lawmakers were removed from the chamber by security guards, while a further eight walked out.
Civic Party LegCo members held up placards in the chamber that read "Safeguard press freedom! Stop suppressing journalists!" in a reference to Hong Kong's refusal of an employment visa to Financial Times Asia editor Victor Mallet, who hosted a public event featuring Andy Chan, head of the banned pro-independence Hong Kong National Party (HKNP).
Shouts were also heard for press freedom, a universal pension scheme, and against a massive land reclamation project announced by Lam on Wednesday.
"We are trying to express our strongest anger and dissatisfaction against Carrie Lam's way of responding to the Victor Mallet controversy," Civic Party lawmaker Claudia Mo, who was forced to leave the chamber by security, told reporters.
"The way she's been talking about it ... is that [the government] don't need to give any explanation. This is just not right," Mo said in comments broadcast by government broadcaster RTHK.
Lam on Tuesday refused to give the reason for the decision on Mallet's visa, saying that the immigration department would "not disclose the individual circumstances of the case or the considerations of the decision," the FT reported.
British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said on Tuesday that in the absence of any explanation by Hong Kong for its refusal to renew Mallet's visa, he could only conclude it was politically motivated.
"I urge the Hong Kong authorities to reconsider this decision — confidence in Hong Kong’s rights and freedoms is an essential component of its future success," he said in a statement.
In August, Mallet hosted a lunch event as acting chairman of Hong Kong's Foreign Correspondents' Club (FCC) featuring HKNP founder Andy Chan in the face of sharp criticism from Chinese and Hong Kong officials.
Mallet, who was traveling away from Hong Kong when his work visa renewal was refused, has now been given just seven days to leave the city, Reuters reported.
Democratic Party chairman Wu Chi-wai said the refusal to renew Mallet's visa had damaged Hong Kong's international reputation for press freedom.
"The international community is now starting to seriously doubt whether we can hold onto press freedom [here in Hong Kong]," Wu told reporters.
‘Nip the problem in the bud’
On Wednesday, Lam warned once again that her administration "will not tolerate any acts that advocate Hong Kong’s independence and threatens the country’s sovereignty, security and development interests."
"We will fearlessly take actions against such acts according to the law in order to safeguard the interests of the country and Hong Kong," she said, adding that the government plans to "nip the problem in the bud."
She also pledged that the government will continue to work on creating a "favorable social environment" for deeply unpopular "Article 23" legislation criminalizing subversion and sedition, and will continue to use existing law to deal with separatists in the meantime.
Last month, Hong Kong's secretary for security banned the HKNP using colonial-era legislation aimed at prevent civil groups from planning armed resistance to the government.
Alvin Yeung, who leads the pro-democracy Civic Party, said Lam's warning was a stark one.
"This actually sends out a very strong message," Yeung told RFA. "It means that ... the government will take a hard line, using [existing legislation], even without enacting Article 23 legislation for the time being."
"I don't think she'll have any qualms about doing that, because she's already done it once, so there'll be a second and a third time too," he said.
Executive Councillor Ronny Tong said the government has put plans for Article 23 legislation on the back burner.
"There won't be a law passed right now, but that doesn't mean it won't ever be passed," Tong said.
And Executive Council convenor Bernard Charnwut Chan said the legislation "would definitely happen" at some point.
Reported by Jing Yuan and Hwang Chun-mei for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Wen Yuqing for the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.