On Wednesday, the 23rd anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover to Chinese rule, thousands of Hong Kongers flocked to the streets in protest against the newly enacted national security law introduced by Beijing. The protesters were met by police officers with pepper spray, tear gas and water cannons.
The details of the sweeping national security law, which broadly punishes crimes of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces, were unveiled on Tuesday evening after weeks of secrecy and uncertainty. Some have said that the enactment of the law represents the stripping of the city’s remaining freedoms.
Thousands scattered around the city to participate in the annual July 1 pro-democracy demonstrations. However, many Hong Kongers appeared to already feel the pressure of the law with the participation for this year’s protests low in comparison to the half a million who attended last year.
While yesterday’s protests saw demonstrators setting up roadblocks, vandalizing shops and setting fires around the city, it was not on the scale of last year’s more violent protests. An SCMP report described the majority of the crowd this year playing “cat and mouse” with the police officers.
At least 10 people were charged for allegedly violating the new security law, forming the first group of people to be arrested by police exercising their newly acquired powers. Several of them were said to be carrying banners calling for “Hong Kong independence,” one of which was a 15-year-old girl waving a flag. These acts would be considered a crime of “secession” under the new piece of legislation, and could potentially carry a sentence of between 3-10 years imprisonment.
The group of 10 were among the around 370 people who were detained for participating in unlawful assemblies, disorderly conduct and possession of offensive weapons. It has not been said whether any of the remaining detained will also be charged under the new legislation.
The Hong Kong Police Force confirmed the first arrest in a post on Twitter, announcing that the man was arrested “for holding a Hong Kong independence flag … violating the national security law.”
They also posted another tweet, condemning “violent acts” by rioters that resulted in at least seven officers getting injured on duty. Among them was one officer who was stabbed in the arm with a small knife, and three others who were hit by a motorcycle.
However, the police force also faced backlash over their behavior during yesterday’s unrest. Riot police deployed water cannons on the streets, and were equipped with tear gas, pepper spray and pepper bullets to disperse the crowds.
Videos have also surfaced showing officers firing water cannons directly at journalists, apparently only stopping when they noticed a plain-clothed officer nearby. Another video recorded shows police officers firing pepper bullets at a shopping mall and hitting innocent civilians passing by.
Secretary for Security John Lee Ka-chiu defended the actions of the police force and their arrests made under the new law. “When the law is promulgated, it becomes effective law in Hong Kong. When it becomes effective law in Hong Kong, everybody has to abide by it … and I think that should be our common sense and common knowledge,” he said.
However, opposition lawmakers and critics continue to raise concerns about the implications of the legislation on the city’s freedoms and the alarmingly wide and ambiguous scope of crimes outlined in the law.
The Hong Kong Bar Association released a statement saying that the new legislation contained numerous provisions that were inconsistent with Hong Kong’s Basic Law.
“[It operates] to undermine core pillars of the ‘one country, two systems’ model, including independent judicial power,” the statement read.
Zhang Xiaoming, deputy chief of the cabinet-level Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, gave a media briefing defending the law arguing that it would prevent “conflict and chaos” in law enforcement and judicial procedures by securing “clear division of work” between two teams.
He also condemned the interference of foreign governments and rejected international criticism and accusations of Beijing moving toward a one country, one system model.
“No one knows better than us how to cherish [one country, two systems],” said Zhang. “What does this have to do with [them]? … The time that the Chinese people have to please others has passed.”
“If we were really doing this, it would be simple. We could just directly apply China’s criminal law … and [the mainland’s] national security law to Hong Kong.”
Meanwhile, the anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover was officially celebrated with traditional flag-raising and annual reception ceremonies.
“We will see the rainbow after the rainstorm, and peace will return after a year of unrest,” said Hong Kong Chief Executive Officer Carrie Lam at the annual reception. She further described the law as “necessary and timely” for the restoration of stability in the city after last year’s often violent protests.
In spite of the new law, some Hong Kongers continue to openly show defiance and publicly state their opposition.
“Of course there is fear of being arrested after the promulgation of the national security law, but everyone out on the streets has to be psychologically prepared for that,” said a 28-year-old protester, speaking to SCMP.
“It is ironic that the July 1  march started because of Article 23,” he said, referring to the Basic Law provision that required Hong Kong to enact its own national security legislation.
“Here we are 17 years later fighting something even more repressive.”
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