HONG KONG, July 1 — Hong Kong police moved swiftly today against protesters gearing up for the first rally since the introduction of sweeping security legislation, making their first arrest under it and warning of punishment for pro-independence material.
Beijing yesterday unveiled the details of the much-anticipated law after weeks of uncertainty, pushing China's freest city and one of the world's most glittering financial hubs onto a more authoritarian path.
As hundreds of protesters gathered downtown for an annual rally marking the 23rd anniversary of the former British colony's handover to China, riot police used pepper spray to arrest at least two people, while one metro station closed.
Police, who earlier banned the rally, cited the law for the first time in confronting protesters and they also made their first arrest under it — a man holding a flag advocating independence.
#BREAKING: A man was arrested for holding a #HKIndependence flag in #CausewayBay, Hong Kong, violating the #NationalSecurityLaw. This is the first arrest made since the law has come into force. pic.twitter.com/C0ezm3SGDm— Hong Kong Police Force (@hkpoliceforce) July 1, 2020
“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,” police said in a message displayed on a purple banner.
The law will punish crimes of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces with up to life in prison, heralding a more authoritarian era for the Asian financial hub.
China's parliament adopted it in response to months of pro-democracy protests last year triggered by fears that Beijing was stifling the city's freedoms, guaranteed by a “one country, two systems” formula agreed when it returned to Chinese rule.
Authorities in Beijing and Hong Kong have repeatedly said the legislation is aimed at a few “troublemakers” and will not affect rights and freedoms, nor investor interests.
But critics fear it will crush the freedoms that are seen as key to Hong Kong's success as a financial centre.
“With the release of the full detail of the law, it should be clear to those in any doubt that this is not the Hong Kong they grew up in,” said Hasnain Malik, head of equity research, Tellimer in Dubai.
“The difference is that US and China relations are far worse and this could be used as a pretext to impede the role of Hong Kong as a finance hub.”
In Beijing, Zhang Xiaoming, executive deputy director of Beijing's Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, told reporters suspects arrested by Beijing's new security office in Hong Kong could be tried on the mainland.
He said the mainland's national security office abided by Chinese law and that Hong Kong's legal system could not be expected to implement the laws of the mainland. Article 55 of the law states that Beijing's national security office in Hong Kong could exercise jurisdiction over “complex” or “serious” cases.
Mainland security agencies will also be based in Hong Kong officially for the first time, with powers that go beyond city laws.
“The law is a birthday gift to (Hong Kong) and will show its precious value in the future,” Zhang said, adding the law would not be applied retroactively. — Reuters