HONG KONG (AFP) — Hong Kong police made the first arrests under Beijing’s new national security law Wednesday as the anniversary of the city’s handover to China was met by thousands defying a ban on protests.
Police deployed water cannon, pepper spray and tear gas throughout the afternoon, arresting more than 180 people, seven of them for breaching the new national security law.
The confrontations came a day after China imposed its legislation on the restless city, a historic move decried by many Western governments as an unprecedented assault on the financial hub’s liberties and autonomy.
Beijing said the law would restore stability. But its imposition sparked the worst unrest in months.
Certain political views and symbols became illegal overnight, including showing support for the independence of Hong Kong, Taiwan, Xinjiang and Tibet.
Police said the first two national security arrests were for people possessing signs promoting independence.
“Advocacy for independence of Hong Kong is against the law,” security minister John Lee said.
Many of the protesters on Wednesday chanted independence slogans.
“What this authoritarian regime wants to do is to terrorize the people and stop them from coming out,” Chris To, a 49-year-old protester, told Agence France-Presse.
Police said one officer was stabbed in the shoulder as he tried to make an arrest.
Opprobrium over the law poured in from critics and western governments, including the United States, over fears the law will usher in a new era of mainland-style political repression.
Under a deal made before the 1997 handover from Britain, authoritarian China guaranteed Hong Kong civil liberties as well as judicial and legislative autonomy until 2047 in a formula known as one country, two systems.
“(China) promised 50 years of freedom to the Hong Kong people, and gave them only 23,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said as he promised unspecified countermeasures.
But Beijing said foreign countries should keep quiet about the law, and Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam hailed the legislation as the “most important development” since the city’s return to Beijing’s rule.
After huge and often violent pro-democracy protests last year, authorities have shown zero tolerance for even peaceful rallies in recent months.
Gatherings of more than 50 people are banned under anti-coronavirus laws even though local transmissions have ended.
The July 1 anniversary has long been a polarizing day in Hong Kong. Beijing loyalists celebrate Hong Kong’s return to the Chinese motherland after a century and a half of what they consider humiliating colonial rule by Britain.
On Wednesday morning helicopters flew across Victoria Harbor carrying a large Chinese flag and a smaller Hong Kong pennant, while a barge appeared with a banner stating, “Welcome the Enacting of the National Security Law,” in giant Chinese characters.
Small groups of Beijing supporters waved Chinese flags in several local neighborhoods, untroubled by police.
Democracy advocates have long used the date to hold large rallies as popular anger toward Beijing swells — although this year’s event was banned for the first time in 17 years.
During huge pro-democracy demonstrations last year, the city’s legislature was besieged and trashed.
The one country, two systems formula helped cement Hong Kong’s status as a world-class business hub, bolstered by an independent judiciary and political freedoms unseen on the mainland.
But critics have long accused Beijing of chipping away at that status and describe the new security law as the most brazen move yet.
It was passed in just six weeks, skipping Hong Kon’’s fractious legislature, and the precise wording was kept secret until it took effect late Tuesday.
It outlaws subversion, secession, terrorism and colluding with foreign forces to undermine national security, with sentences of up to life in prison.
It also topples the legal firewall that existed between the city’s judiciary and the mainland’s party-controlled courts.
China will have jurisdiction over “serious” cases and its security agencies will be able to operate publicly in Hong Kong for the first time.
Another provision also claims universal jurisdiction for national security crimes committed beyond Hong Kong or China.
More than two dozen countries — including Britain, France, Germany and Japan — urged Beijing to reconsider the law.
Canada warned its citizens in Hong Kong that they face an increased risk of arbitrary detention and extradition to China.
Authorities in Taiwan opened a new office to deal with Hong Kongers seeking refuge.
Beijing says the law will not end Hong Kong’s freedoms, but critics have little faith in that, as similar national security laws are used routinely on the mainland to crush dissent.
by JEROME TAYLOR and YAN ZHAO
© Agence France-Presse