HONG KONG — Police in Hong Kong have made the first arrests under a new national security law, less than 24 hours since it was passed by mainland China. Amid dramatic scenes, thousands of protesters took to the streets on the 23rd anniversary of the territory’s handover from the U.K. to China.
At least seven people were arrested under the new law, police said, which came into force late Tuesday evening. The move is seen as the most significant change since Hong Kong left British rule in 1997 and by critics as a direct threat to the “one country, two systems” policy that carved out democratic freedoms for Hong Kong.
Hong Kong police said they had arrested more than 180 people in total for taking part in “illegal assemblies” and other violations on Wednesday, with police using pepper-ball guns and a water cannon to disperse demonstrators. Police also said one officer had been injured by protesters and that others had set fire to a barricade and obstructed traffic.
The anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover to China has become an annual occasion for protesters to rally against what they see as Beijing’s increasing encroachment on the city’s freedoms.
Formal authorization for the protest was refused for the first time this year over coronavirus concerns. But this did not deter a largely peaceful crowd of demonstrators.
The legislation outlaws crimes of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces, with up to life in prison.
Thousands of protesters chanted “resist till the end” and “Hong Kong independence,” in scenes resembling the pro-democracy protests that swept through the city last year.
“It’s a closed-door law, there was no public consultation,” Sophie, a 23-year-old protester told NBC News, declining to give her surname due to security concerns.
“People here do not expect the result to change, but we are here just to show our attitude … to tell the government that it’s not fair and it’s not authorized in our hearts.”
Prominent pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong announced on Tuesday that he was quitting “Demosisto,” a group he formed, amid fears he could be arrested under the new law. Taking to the streets on Wednesday, Wong called for international solidarity with Hong Kong and urged citizens to “never surrender.”
Wary looking police showcased a new warning technique. Waving a purple flag with writing on that warned protesters that if they continued to chant anti-China slogans, they would face arrest under the new security law.
“You are displaying flags or banners/chanting slogans/or conducting yourselves with an intent such as secession or subversion, which may constitute offences under the … national security law,” the message read.
Critics fear the legislation will crush wide-ranging freedoms in Hong Kong denied to people in mainland China that are seen as key to its success as a global financial hub.
But authorities in Beijing and Hong Kong have been at pains to stress that the legislation is aimed at a few “troublemakers” and will not affect rights and freedoms.
Speaking at a flag-raising ceremony to mark the handover anniversary, the city’s leader, Carrie Lam, said the law was the most important development since the city’s return to Chinese rule.
“It is also an inevitable and prompt decision to restore stability,” Lam said at the harbor-front venue where 23 years ago the last colonial governor, Chris Patten — a staunch critic of the new security law — tearfully handed back Hong Kong to Chinese rule.
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In Beijing, Zhang Xiaoming, executive deputy director of Beijing’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, told reporters on Wednesday that suspects arrested by a new Beijing-run security office in Hong Kong could be tried on the mainland.
“The law is a birthday gift to (Hong Kong) and will show its precious value in the future,” Zhang said, noting that the law would not be applied retroactively.
He also dismissed foreign meddling in China’s internal affairs after the security law sparked widespread global condemnation on Tuesday from countries including Germany, Japan, Britain and the United States.
“Gone are the days when Chinese people looked at other people’s faces and depend on other people’s pleasures,” said Zhang.
The United States has heavily criticized the law and said it will withdraw some of Hong Kong’s preferential trade treatment, stating that the territory can no longer be regarded as sufficiently autonomous from the mainland.
It will also limit visas to some Chinese officials, place restrictions on a handful of Chinese media outlets in the U.S. and bar defense exports to Hong Kong.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, called the law “draconian” on Wednesday and said it would end freedoms in Hong Kong. China retaliated imposing similar visa limits on U.S. officials and restrictions on some U.S. media outlets and said it would not be intimidated.
Ed Flanagan and Justin Solomon reported from Hong Kong. Adela Suliman reported from London.
Dawn Liu contributed.