A police officer raises his pepper spray handgun as he detains a man during a march against the national security law at the anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover to China from Britain in Hong Kong on July 1 2020. Picture: REUTERS/TYRONE SIU
A police officer raises his pepper spray handgun as he detains a man during a march against the national security law at the anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover to China from Britain in Hong Kong on July 1 2020. Picture: REUTERS/TYRONE SIU

Hong Kong/Beijing — Hong Kong police made their first arrests under sweeping national security legislation that has dramatically curtailed dissent in the city — less than 24 hours after Chinese legislators handed it down.

Earlier in the day, Hong Kong CEO Carrie Lam called the law the “most important development” in relations between Hong Kong and China since the city’s handover from British rule in 1997, despite the concern about what the measure will mean for its future autonomy from the mainland.

The legislation calls for sentences as long as life in prison for the most serious cases of terrorism, secession, subversion of state power and collusion with foreign forces.

The law came into force just ahead of the July 1 anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to China in 1997, a symbolic occasion usually marked by mass protests against Beijing. An appeals panel upheld an unprecedented police ban against a Civil Human Rights Front rally planned for Wednesday, but a few hundred protesters came out in the afternoon in Causeway Bay.

Hong Kong’s police force said on Facebook that another arrest had been made under the security law, after they detained a woman who displayed a sign reading “Hong Kong Independence.” A police spokesperson said “at least two” people had now been arrested under the law.

Earlier in the afternoon, police tweeted that they had made their first arrest, less than 24 hours after China imposed the law. A man was arrested for holding a Hong Kong independence flag in the central Causeway Bay neighbourhood, police said.

Demonstrators who had gathered in Causeway Bay tried marching towards Admiralty — the neighbourhood home to the city’s legislature and central government offices that saw some of last year’s biggest protests — but were stopped after police blocked the road.

There was a heavy police presence in the area on main thoroughfare Queen’s Road East. Officers also fired a water cannon at demonstrators on Hennessy Road in Causeway Bay.

Several hundred demonstrators came out in Causeway Bay, near the well-known Sogo shopping centre. Their chants were similar to those heard over months of pro-democracy protests last year, including: “Liberate Hong Kong! Revolution of our time!”

“To a lot of Hong Kongers, this may be the last time we can gather to protest against the regime,” said a freelancer on Lockhart Road, who gave his name as Law. “We don’t know if there will be any more opportunities for us to go on the streets for the same cause. Maybe we won’t be able to protest ever again for the rest of our lives.”

Quietly voicing opinions

Police said they had arrested more than 30 people for offences including the violation of the security law, illegal assembly, obstructing police officers and possessing weapons. They didn’t specify how many of those people had been detained under the new law.

“I won’t stop voicing my opinions, but maybe I will do it more discreetly in the future,” Law said.

Lam briefed reporters at the central government offices in Admiralty against a backdrop showing Hong Kong’s skyline and the full name of the law. China’s law shows a “high degree of trust” in Hong Kong’s leaders and Beijing’s determination to improve “one country, two systems,” she said.

She reiterated that the law wouldn’t affect Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy or judicial independence as she addressed a reception at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre in Wanchai, which held the handover ceremony in 1997.

“This legislation is considered the most important development in the relationship between the central and Hong Kong governments since the handover, and is a historic step in improving the mechanisms to safeguard the country’s sovereignty, territorial integrity and security,” she said.

Lam also said this year’s anniversary had major significance, as the Chinese anthem — played at the flag-raising ceremony and opening of the reception — was now protected by the city’s new national anthem law.

Bloomberg