HONG KONG: A woman reacts after she was hit with pepper spray deployed by police as they cleared a street with protesters rallying against a new national security law in Hong Kong yesterday. — AFP

HONG KONG: Hong Kong police made the first arrest under Beijing’s new national security law as the city greeted the anniversary of its handover to China with protests banned and its cherished freedoms looking increasingly fragile. The commemorations came a day after China imposed a sweeping security law on the city, a historic move decried by many Western governments as an unprecedented assault on the finance hub’s liberties and autonomy. Police said a man with a Hong Kong independence flag was the first to be arrested under the new law, confirming that certain political views and symbols had become illegal overnight. Opprobrium poured in from critics and western governments – led by the United States – over fears the law will usher in a new era of mainland-style political repression. 

Under a deal ahead of the 1997 handover from Britain, authoritarian China guaranteed Hong Kong civil liberties as well as judicial and legislative autonomy until 2047 in a deal known as “One Country, Two Systems”. “(China) promised 50 years of freedom to the Hong Kong people, and gave them only 23,” US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said as he promised unspecified countermeasures. But Beijing said foreign countries should keep quiet about the law, while Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam hailed the legislation as the “most important development” since the city’s return to Beijing’s rule.

Activists called on people to defy a ban on protests and march on Hong Kong island yesterday afternoon. But it was unclear how many would be willing to face the risks posed by the new law and increasingly aggressive police tactics towards even peaceful rallies in recent months. Gatherings of more than 50 people are banned under anti-coronavirus laws even though local transmissions have ended. Riot police quickly used pepper spray and made arrests when a few hundred people gathered in the district of Causeway Bay yesterday afternoon.

Floats and helicopters

During a morning anniversary ceremony, helicopters flew across Victoria Harbour carrying a large Chinese flag and a smaller Hong Kong pennant, while a barge appeared with a banner reading “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. The July 1 anniversary has long been a polarizing day in the city. 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. Democracy advocates have used the occasion to hold large rallies as popular anger towards 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 by protesters.

Jurisdiction, life sentences

The “One Country, Two Systems” formula initially helped cement the 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 Kong’s fractious legislature, and the precise wording was kept secret until it came into 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 has 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 also be able to operate publicly in the city 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, saying in a statement to the UN Human Rights Council that it undermines the city’s freedoms. Canada, meanwhile, updated a travel advisory yesterday for citizens in Hong Kong warning that they faced an increased risk of arbitrary detention or even extradition to China. In Taiwan, authorities there opened a new office to deal with Hong Kongers seeking refuge. 

China to foreign critics

Meanwhile, China yesterday slammed international criticism over a controversial new national security law for Hong Kong, saying other countries should keep quiet. Western governments and critics have warned the new law will curb the city’s freedoms and undermine the “One Country, Two Systems” policy meant to protect freedoms unseen on the mainland. But Beijing officials rebuffed the criticism of the law at a press conference. “What’s this got to do with you?” said Zhang Xiaoming of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office of the State Council. “It’s none of your business”.

Officials insisted there had been wide consultation with members of Hong Kong society and hit back at criticism it was undermining Hong Kong’s autonomy. “If what we want is one country, one system, it would have been simple,” Zhang said. “We are completely able to impose the criminal law, the criminal procedure and the national security law and other national laws on Hong Kong. “Why would we need to put so much effort into formulating a national security law tailor-made for Hong Kong?” Zhang also insisted that the law – which he said can not be applied retrospectively – was only to target “a handful of criminals” and “not the entire opposition camp”.

“The purpose of enacting Hong Kong’s National Security Law is definitely not to target Hong Kong’s opposition camp, pro-democracy camp, as the enemy,” he said. Instead, the One Country, Two Systems policy showed the government’s “political tolerance”, he said. His comments come a day after Hong Kong pro-democracy party Demosisto announced it was disbanding, following the passing of the national security law. Zhang also lashed out at suggestions of punishment from other nations. “As for… some countries now saying that they will impose severe sanctions on some Chinese officials, I think this is the logic of bandits.”—AFP