Hong Kong sees first arrests under new security law on handover anniversary

Riot police detain a woman as they clear protesters taking part in a rally against a new national security law in Hong Kong on July 1, 2020, on the 23rd anniversary of the city's handover from Britain to China.
Riot police detain a woman as they clear protesters taking part in a rally against a new national security law in Hong Kong on July 1, 2020, on the 23rd anniversary of the city's handover from Britain to China. © Dale de la Rey, AFP

Hong Kong police made their first arrests under a new national security law imposed by Beijing, detaining protesters on Wednesday for carrying flags and signs calling for Hong Kong's independence, as Britain accused China of a "clear and serious" breach of their handover agreement.

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More than 300 protesters were arrested in total, nine under the new security law, as protesters took to the streets in defiance of the sweeping security legislation, which critics say is aimed at snuffing out dissent.

Beijing unveiled the details of the much-anticipated law late on Tuesday after weeks of uncertainty, pushing China's freest area and one of the world's most glittering financial hubs on to a more authoritarian path.

On Wednesday, the anniversary of the former British colony's handover to China in 1997, riot police used pepper spray and fired pellets as they made arrests after crowds spilled into the streets chanting "resist till the end" and "Hong Kong independence".

A man who had a Hong Kong independence flag was arrested at a protest in the city’s Causeway Bay shopping district. Police later arrested a woman for holding up a sign displaying the British flag and calling for Hong Kong's independence.  

The law makes secessionist, subversive or terrorist activities illegal, as well as foreign intervention in the city's internal affairs. Any person taking part in secessionist activities, such as shouting slogans or holding up banners and flags urging for the city’s independence, is in violation of the law regardless of whether violence is used.

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The most serious offenders, such as those deemed to be masterminds behind the crimes, could receive a maximum punishment of life imprisonment. Lesser offenders could receive jail terms of up to three years, short-term detention or restriction.

Hong Kong’s leader strongly endorsed the new law in her speech marking Wednesday's 23rd anniversary of the territory's handover from colonial Britain. 

“The enactment of the national law is regarded as the most significant development in the relationship between the central authorities and the HKSAR (Hong Kong Special Administrative Region) since Hong Kong’s return to the motherland,” chief executive Carrie Lam said in a speech, following a flag-raising ceremony and the playing of China’s national anthem. 

“It is also an essential and timely decision for restoring stability in Hong Kong,” she said.

A pro-democracy political party, The League of Social Democrats, organised a protest march during the flag-raising ceremony. About a dozen participants chanted slogans echoing demands from protesters last year for political reform and an investigation into accusation of police abuse.

'One country, two systems'?

The law’s passage Tuesday further blurs the distinction between the legal systems of semi-autonomous Hong Kong, which maintained aspects of British law after the 1997 handover, and the mainland’s authoritarian Communist Party system. Critics say the law effectively ends the “one country, two systems” framework under which Hong Kong was promised a high degree of autonomy.

The law directly targets some of the actions of anti-government protesters last year, which included attacks on government offices and police stations, damage to subway stations and the shutdown of the city’s international airport. Acts of vandalism against government facilities or public transit can be prosecuted as subversion or terrorism, while anyone taking part in activities deemed as secessionist would also be in violation of the new law. 

Pro-democracy lawmaker Claudia Mo said in a news conference that the new law did not abide by rule of law and was a dire warning to the free press.

“This would tell you that they want not just to get us, but to intimidate us into inaction, into a catatonic state,” Mo said.

Hong Kong's police force had said they would consider as illegal any flag or banner raised by protesters deemed to be promoting Hong Kong's separation from China or expressing support for independence for Tibet, Xinjiang and the self-governing island democracy of Taiwan that China claims as its own.

Police will use a new purple flag to warn protesters if they display banners or shout slogans that may constitute a crime under the law and could be arrested and prosecuted for violating it.

Concerns have also been raised over the fate of key opposition figures, some of whom have already been charged for taking part in protests, as well as the disqualification of candidates for the Legislative Council elections scheduled for September.

In Beijing, the executive deputy director of the Cabinet’s Hong Kong affairs office Zhang Xiaoming said Hong Kong people were allowed to criticise the ruling Communist Party but could not turn those complaints “into actions”.

“What happened recently in Hong Kong has shown a deviation from the right track of the ‘one country, two systems’ (framework),” Zhang told reporters Wednesday.

“To some extent, we made this law in order to correct the deviation ... to pull it closer to ‘One-Country.’” 

Schools, social groups, media outlets, websites and others unspecified will be monitored and their national security awareness will be raised, according to the law's text, while China’s central government will have authority over the activities of foreign non-governmental organisations and media outlets in Hong Kong. 

It says central government bodies in Hong Kong will take over in “complicated cases” and when there is a serious threat to national security. Local authorities are barred from interfering with central government bodies operating in Hong Kong while they are carrying out their duties, according to the text. 

UK promises 'bespoke' immigration route

The new legislation has deepened concerns abroad about Hong Kong's future.

"The enactment and imposition of this national security law constitute a clear and serious breach of the Sino-British Joint Declaration," Prime Minister Boris Johnson told parliament on Wednesday.

Johnson said Britain would stand by its pledge to give British National Overseas (BNO) passport-holders in Hong Kong a "bespoke" path to British citizenship, allowing them to settle in the United Kingdom.

The UK has said it could offer residency and possible citizenship to about three million of Hong Kong’s 7.5 million people. There were 349,881 holders of the passports as of February.

British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab described Wednesday's protests as heartbreaking and reprimanded HSBC and other banks for supporting the new law, saying the rights of Hong Kong should not be sacrificed for bankers' bonuses.

Meanwhile, the US is moving to end special trade terms given to the territory. The Trump administration has also said it will bar defence exports to Hong Kong and will soon require licences for the sale of items that have both civilian and military uses. 

The US Congress has also moved to impose sanctions on people deemed connected to political repression in Hong Kong, including police officials.

China has said it will impose visa restrictions on Americans it sees as interfering over Hong Kong. 

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo denounced the threat of a visa ban as a sign of “how Beijing refuses to take responsibility for its own choices" and said the law's adoption “destroys the territory’s autonomy and one of China’s greatest achievements". 

Beijing’s “paranoia and fear of its own people’s aspirations have led it to eviscerate the very foundation of the territory’s success", Pompeo said in a statement. 

Taiwan on Wednesday opened an office to facilitate migration from Hong Kong. 

The establishment of the office is “not only a statement on Taiwan’s support to Hong Kong’s democracy and freedom, but also highlights our determination to care for Hong Kong people”, said Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council Minister Chen Ming-tong at a ribbon-cutting ceremony.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP and AP)

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