Hong Kong officials marked the 23rd anniversary of the territory’s return to China on Wednesday hours after Beijing’s imposition of a new national security law that drew defiant protests and international condemnation.
Chief Executive Carrie Lam joined her predecessors and other officials at the harbour’s edge for a flag-raising ceremony and a reception for specially-invited guests, as the territory’s annual pro-democracy march was banned for the first time.
In her speech, Lam praised the new law as “the most important development” in the relationship between Beijing and Hong Kong since the 1997 handover, saying it is “necessary and timely” move to restore stability.
She defended the legislation, which came into force overnight after being rushed through China’s rubber-stamp parliament as “constitutional, lawful, sensible and reasonable”.
In a press briefing following the ceremony, Zhang Xiaoming, the Executive Deputy Director of the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office, said suspects arrested under the law would be tried in the mainland, adding that Hong Kong’s legal system could not be expected to implement the laws of the mainland.
Spreading “rumours” and “directing hatred” towards the Hong Kong police are among the transgressions that could be potentially prosecuted and punished under the new law, he said.
In a separate press conference on Wednesday afternoon, Lam also said that the law reflects Beijing’s desire to uphold one country, two system.
In response, pro-democracy lawmaker Claudia Mo was quoted as telling reporters that “free press could just be announced dead in Hong Kong.”
She added that journalists who publish sensitive information about Hong Kong could also be in “dire trouble”.
Amid threats of possible arrest, protesters gathered near the conference centre where the ceremony was held, carrying banners and shouting their opposition to the new law, which seeks to punish crimes of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces with punishments including life in prison.
Authorities barred civil society’s annual demonstration, citing a ban on gatherings of more than 50 people because of the coronavirus, but many activists have said they will defy the order and march later in the afternoon. The crowd of protesters later grew to several thousands across the city.
As of 0500 GMT, police officers were seen making arrests, including Democratic Party legislator Andrew Wan, who was seen being led by police in handcuff. Images on social media also showed police using pepper spray on Wan’s face. Ray Chan, another Hong Kong parlimentarian also reported being arrested alongside several other people.
At the city’s Causeway Bay area, one man wearing a “Free Hong Kong” shirt become the first person arrested by police for violating the new law. A search also yielded a “Hong Kong independence” flag, police said in a statement. Dozens of others were also arrested but it was unclear what charges they face.
The annual rally is traditionally held to air grievances about everything from sky-high home prices to what many see as Beijing’s increasing encroachment on the city’s freedoms.
“We march every year, every July 1, every October 1 and we will keep on marching,” said pro-democracy activist Leung Kwok-hung.
However, police were seen setting up cordon lines and blocking the area where the banned annual march was supposed to start at 0600 GMT.
On July 1 last year, hundreds of protesters stormed the city’s legislature to protest against a now-scrapped bill that would have allowed extraditions to mainland China, ransacking the building. The protests continued throughout the year with rally-goers demanding universal suffrage as promised in the territory’s Basic Law or mini-constitution.
Critics fear the legislation, which was only made public after it was passed, will outlaw dissent and destroy the autonomy promised when Hong Kong was returned from the United Kingdom to China in 1997.
Al Jazeera’s Katrina Yu, reporting from Beijing, said that the speed at which the new law was crafted and passed proved China’s “determination to stamp out” Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement, which it sees “as too much of a threat” to the central government’s power.
She said that China may have lost patience over the last year, as the protests continued.
The legislation radically restructures the relationship between Beijing and Hong Kong envisaged under the so-called “one country, two systems” framework, obliterating the legal firewall between the city’s independent judiciary and the mainland’s party-controlled courts.
It empowers China to set up a national security agency in the city, staffed by officials who are not bound by local laws when carrying out duties.
It outlaws four types of national security crimes: subversion, secession, terrorism and colluding with foreign forces to endanger national security.
The full text of the law gave three scenarios when China might take over a prosecution: complicated foreign interference cases, “very serious” cases and when national security faces “serious and realistic threats”.
“Both the national security agency and Hong Kong can request to pass the case to mainland China and the prosecution will be done by the Supreme People’s Procuratorate and the trial will be in the Supreme Court,” the law stated.
“No matter whether violence has been used, or the threat of violence used, leaders or serious offenders will be sentenced for life imprisonment or a minimum of 10 years in jail,” it said.
“The Hong Kong government has no jurisdiction over the national security agency in Hong Kong and its staff when they are discharging duties provided in this law,” it added.
The text also specified that those who destroy government facilities and utilities would be considered subversive. Damaging public transportation facilities and arson would constitute acts of “terrorism”. Any person taking part in secessionist activities, whether organising or participating, will violate the law regardless of whether violence is used.
The law also said certain national security cases could be held behind closed doors without juries in Hong Kong if they contained state secrets, although the verdict and eventual judgements would be made public.
The legislation has drawn international condemnation with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo accusing China of “paranoia” and saying the law “destroys the territory’s autonomy and one of China’s greatest achievements”.The introduction of the law also demonstrated that China’s commitment to international treaties, such as the Sino-British Joint Declaration, were “empty words”, Pompeo added.
Meanwhile, Taiwan opened an office on Wednesday to help people fleeing Hong Kong, with a senior minister saying the self-ruled island would continue to support people in the territory.
“This is an important milestone for the government to further support democracy and freedom in Hong Kong,” said Chen Ming-tong, the head of Taiwan’s China-policy making Mainland Affairs Council.
Al Jazeera’s Adrian Brown, reporting from Hong Kong, said that residents of the city probably felt that the new law was “a lot more far-reaching than they imagined, (and) many are “still trying to figure out how it will impact their lives.”
“Make no mistake. This is a law that will going to affect everyone in Hong Kong.”
Source: Al Jazeera