Hong Kong officials celebrated the 23rd anniversary of the territory’s return to China on Wednesday hours after Beijing’s imposition of a new national security law that prompted challenging protests and international condemnation.
Executive director Carrie Lam joined her predecessors and other officials at the edge of the port for a flag-raising ceremony and a reception for specially invited guests, as the pro-democracy annual march from the territory was banned for the first time.
In his speech, Lam praised the new law as “the most important development” in the Beijing-Hong Kong relationship since the 1997 handover, and said it is a “necessary and timely” move to restore stability.
She defended the legislation, which came into effect overnight after being rushed by China’s rubber stamp parliament as “constitutional, legal, sensible and reasonable.”
At a post-ceremony press conference, Zhang Xiaoming, deputy executive director of the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office, said the suspects arrested under the law would be tried on the mainland, adding that Hong Kong’s legal system cannot be expected to implement the laws of the mainland.
Spread “rumors” and “direct hatred” towards the Hong Kong police Among the offenses could be among the offenses potentially prosecuted and punished under the new law., he said.
Amid threats of possible arrest, protesters gathered near the conference center where the ceremony was held, carrying placards and shouting their opposition to the new law, which seeks to punish crimes of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces. with punishments that include life in prison.
Authorities banned the annual civil society rally, citing a ban on gatherings of more than 50 people due to the coronavirus, but many activists have said they will defy the order and march later in the afternoon.
As of 0500 GMT, police officers were seen making arrests, including Democratic Party legislator Andrew Wan, who was seen being led by the police in handcuffs. The images on social media also showed the police using pepper spray on Wan’s face.
In the Causeway Bay area, a man became the first person arrested by police for violating the new law, after a search dropped a “Hong Kong independence” flag.
The National Security Law may prohibit inciting hatred against the Hong Kong government and grant law enforcement powers radical powers, but it definitely failed to silence the pesky. “DLLM, #HongKongPolice,” protesters shout. pic.twitter.com/ycEslKvQEw
– Rachel Cheung (@ rachel_cheung1) July 1, 2020
The annual rally is traditionally held to voice complaints about everything from skyrocketing house prices to what many see as Beijing’s increasing invasion of the city’s freedoms.
“We march every year, every July 1, every October 1, and we will continue to march,” said pro-democracy activist Leung Kwok-hung.
However, police were seen setting up cordon lines and blocking the area where the prohibited annual march was supposed to start at 0600 GMT.
On July 1 of last year, hundreds of protesters broke into the city’s legislature to protest a now-ruled bill that would have allowed extraditions to mainland China, looting the building. The protests continued throughout the year with protesters demanding universal suffrage as promised by the Basic Law or the mini-constitution of the territory.
Critics fear the legislation, which was only made public after its passage, will ban dissent and destroy the autonomy promised when Hong Kong returned from the UK to China in 1997.
Al Jazeera’s Katrina Yu, reporting from Beijing, said the speed at which the new law was drafted and passed demonstrated “China’s determination to eradicate” Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement, which it considers “a major threat” to power. from the central government.
She said China may have lost patience in the past year, as the protests continued.
The legislation radically restructures the relationship between Beijing and Hong Kong within the framework called “one country, two systems”, eliminating the legal firewall between the independent judiciary of the city and the courts controlled by the mainland parties.
It allows China to establish a national security agency in the city, with personnel who are not subject to local law in the performance of their duties.
It prohibits four types of national security crimes: subversion, secession, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces to endanger national security.
The full text of the law gave three scenarios in which China could take charge of a prosecution: complicated cases of foreign interference, “very serious” cases and when national security faces “serious and realistic threats”.
“Both the national security agency and Hong Kong can request that the case be transferred to mainland China and the Supreme People’s Procuratorate will carry out the prosecution and the trial will be in the Supreme Court,” the law said.
“It doesn’t matter if the violence was used or if the threat of violence was used, the leaders or serious criminals will be sentenced to life in prison or a minimum of 10 years in prison,” he said.
“The Hong Kong government has no jurisdiction over the Hong Kong national security agency and its staff when they are fulfilling the duties provided for in this law,” he added.
The text also specified that those who destroy public facilities and services would be considered subversive. Damaging public transport facilities and arson would constitute acts of “terrorism”. Anyone who participates in secessionist activities, whether organizing or participating, will violate the law regardless of whether violence is used.
The law also said that certain national security cases could be carried out behind closed doors without juries in Hong Kong if they contained state secrets, although the verdict and eventual trials would be made public.
The legislation has generated international condemnation with the United States Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, accusing China of “paranoia” and saying that the law “destroys the autonomy of the territory and one of China’s greatest achievements.”
The introduction of the law also showed that China’s commitment to international treaties, such as the Sino-British Joint Declaration, were “empty words,” added Pompeo.
In the meantime, Taiwan opened an office on Wednesday to help people fleeing Hong Kong, with a high-ranking minister who said that the autonomous 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,” he said. Chen Ming-tong, head of the China Mainland Council for Policy Development in Taiwan.
Al Jazeera’s Adrian Brown, reporting from Hong Kong, said city residents probably felt that the new law was “much broader than they imagined, (and) many” are still trying to figure out how it will affect their lives. “
“Make no mistake. This is a law that will affect everyone in Hong Kong.”