By James Pomfret
HONG KONG (Reuters) - Some Hong Kong lawmakers walked out of the Legislative Council as city leader Carrie Lam was about to give her annual policy address on Wednesday, protesting against the rejection of a work visa for a senior British journalist.
Chanting "Protect media freedoms" and holding placards that said "Free Press. No Persecution", around a dozen pro-democracy lawmakers left the chamber before Lam gave a 45-minute speech laying out policy priorities for the former British colony.
The protest came after Hong Kong last week rejected a visa renewal application from Victor Mallet, the Asia editor for the Financial Times newspaper, who in August hosted a speech at the Foreign Correspondents' Club by a pro-independence activist.
Hong Kong authorities and Lam have so far refused to explain the visa decision.
Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1997 under a "one country, two systems" principle, with the guarantee of a high degree of autonomy and freedoms, including freedom of the press, not enjoyed elsewhere in China.
But talk of independence is anathema to Communist Party rulers in Beijing.
"We were expressing our anger and disgust at Carrie Lam," said pro-democracy lawmaker Claudia Mo who took part in the protest.
"She is practically turning Hong Kong into an international joke ... She's quite determined to rule by fear."
The FCC, one of Asia's leading press clubs, said it neither endorsed nor opposed the views of its speakers, but was an institution defending the right to free speech.
The visa denial has kicked off a storm of protest and has drawn criticism from the United States and Britain. British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt on Tuesday suggested the visa rejection was "politically motivated" and he called on authorities to reconsider.
Critics say China's authoritarian reach is creeping further into Hong Kong.
"Authorities in mainland China routinely restrict people’s ability to engage in peaceful advocacy and public discussions on grounds of 'national security' by using this vaguely and broadly defined concept as a pretence to place unjustified restrictions on the exercise of these freedoms," Amnesty International wrote in a statement.
"The government in Hong Kong also seems to be pursuing a broadened concept of 'national security'."
Since taking office last July, Lam has faced several challenges including an economy and financial markets left vulnerable by the U.S.-China trade war, and one of the world's most expensive property markets.
Political tensions between democracy and independence activists resisting China's tightening grip on the city have continued to simmer.
In her speech, Lam gave her strongest warning yet against those seeking to split Hong Kong from China.
"Hong Kong will not tolerate any acts that advocate Hong Kong's independence and threaten 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," Lam wrote in a full text version of her address.
Senior Chinese officials including President Xi Jinping have warned any undermining of national sovereignty is a "red line" that cannot be crossed.
Some Chinese officials and pro-Beijing politicians have stepped up calls in recent months for Hong Kong to enact new national security laws under Article 23 of the city's mini-constitution, the Basic Law.
This provision states that Hong Kong must enact laws to prohibit acts of treason, secession, sedition and subversion against the Chinese government.
An attempt to introduce such legislation in 2003, however, drew nearly half a million protesters on to the streets, leading to its eventual shelving.
Lam reiterated in her policy address that Hong Kong is duty-bound to enact such laws, but only when there is a "favourable social environment".
She didn't specify a timeframe.
"This issue has aroused extensive public concern and intense discussion on the legislation for Article 23," she said. "I will listen to these views earnestly and explore ways to enable the Hong Kong society to respond positively to this constitutional requirement."
(Reporting by James Pomfret, Clare Jim, Donny Kwok; Editing by Darren Schuettler, Neil Fullick and Nick Macfie)