The ruling Chinese Communist Party stepped up its international propaganda drive with a celebrity signature campaign in support of draconian sedition laws for Hong Kong, as the city's police banned the annual candlelight vigil for the victims of the 1989 Tiananmen massacre for the first time since the 1997 handover to Chinese rule.
Pro-Beijing groups in Hong Kong said they had collected three million signatures amid a city-wide campaign in support of the national security law, which will target "actions and activities" deemed subversive, seditious, instigated by foreign forces, or supportive of independence.
In a move widely condemned by foreign governments and rights groups as signaling the end of Hong Kong's autonomy and status as a separate legal jurisdiction, the law will be imposed on the city, bypassing its Legislative Council (LegCo).
The signatures were collected by pro-Beijing groups and employees of Chinese companies in Hong Kong, government broadcaster RTHK reported.
Some 2,400 singers, actors, and other members of Hong Kong's entertainment industry, which relies heavily on the mainland Chinese market, have also come out in support of the law.
Signatories included pro-China celebrities like Jackie Chan, Alan Tam, Wong Cho Lam, and Raymond Wong.
The prospect of China's feared state security police operating in the city to enforce the law has prompted a rush to apply for British National Overseas (BNO) passports offered to residents of Hong Kong by the U.K. ahead of the handover.
Foreign secretary Dominic Raab has said London will make it easier for holders of the controversial passport to settle in the U.K., extending a visa-free permission to live and work in the country from six months to a year, with a possible pathway to citizenship via further extensions.
More than 300,000 Hongkongers are currently eligible for the passport, which entitles them to consular assistance but no citizenship, in a move that London has always said was demanded by Beijing during handover negotiations.
A new front line
Hong Kong political commentator Lam Kei said the city is becoming the front line of a new Cold War between China and Western nations.
"In the battle for freedom and democracy against totalitarianism, Hong Kong is the new front line," Lam wrote. "The Chinese Communist Party's breach of its treaty obligations under the Sino-British Joint Declaration isn't just a problem for the people of Hong Kong."
"It also shows how unscrupulous Beijing can be when pursuing its goals, and how it will continue to do this in future," Lam said in a commentary broadcast by RFA's Cantonese Service.
He said the problems Hong Kong faces now will be played out in Taiwan, southeast Asia, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and the U.S. in future. "Exercise suspicion," he wrote.
In a sign that the new law will affect freedom of expression in the city, five university chiefs also publicly expressed their support for the legislation.
The presidents of Hong Kong University, Chinese University (CUHK), Lingnan University, Polytechnic University (Poly U), and Education University said they "understand the need to enact national security laws" in pursuit of social stability and good public order.
During last year's anti-government protests, Poly U and CUHK saw pitched battles between students and riot police, who fired thousands of rounds of tear gas as they besieged defiant students who erected barricades and flung Molotov cocktails to prevent them from entering the campus.
Rights groups and medics said the situation amounted to a humanitarian crisis, as police detained medical staff trying to help sick and injured protesters.
The presidents of the University of Science and Technology, Baptist University, and City University didn't sign the statement, however.
Candlelight vigil banned
China's international propaganda push came as police banned an annual candlelight vigil to remember the Tiananmen massacre that has taken place in Hong Kong ever since 1990.
The Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, which organizes the vigil, has called on people to light candles wherever they happen to be, instead.
Police said such a gathering would be a "major threat to public health" amid the coronavirus pandemic.
You Weijie, spokeswoman for the Tiananmen Mothers victims' group, said she knows the victims will be remembered in Hong Kong, come what may.
"I know that Hong Kong people always support us. As for this June 4, I know the people of Hong Kong will make their own arrangement to commemorate," she said in comments reported by RTHK.
Reported by Lu Xi and Man Hoi-tsan for RFA's Mandarin and Cantonese Services. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.