Hong Kong police have arrested more than 180 protesters on the first day of life under the controversial national security laws imposed by Beijing, as China confirmed that some suspects could be extradited to the mainland under the new rules.
The city’s police force said the arrests were for offences including some under the new laws. On the 23rd anniversary of the handover from Britain to China, crowds defied a ban on protests and gathered on the streets of the busy shopping district Causeway Bay, where there were large numbers of riot police.
“Liberate Hong Kong!”, “Oppose the black police,” many shouted, in a reference to corruption. Some held up black placards emblazoned with the message: “Oppose the bad national security law.”
A Twitter user reported that veteran pro-democracy lawmaker Lee Cheuk Yan was dragged down from a podium by police, who also pepper-sprayed dozens of journalists at the scene.
On Wednesday afternoon Hong Kong police made their first arrest since the law came into force. Police said on Twitter that a man was arrested for holding a Hong Kong independence flag in a protest, which it said violated the new law.
However photographs of the flag later showed tiny additional words which made it read: “No to Hong Kong independence.”
Later in the day police said more than 30 people had been arrested for offences including “illegal assembly, violating the Hong Kong national security law, obstructing police officers from performing their duties and possession of offensive weapons”.
Earlier, the city’s leader, Carrie Lam, had told a ceremony marking the 23rd anniversary of its handover to China on Wednesday that the security laws were “the most important development in relations between central – HKSAR [Hong Kong Special Administrative Region] since the handover”.
In Beijing on Wednesday, the new law was hailed a “milestone” and a “turning point” that would put Hong Kong back on track for development after a year of protests.
Senior Chinese official Zhang Xiaoming, executive director of the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs office, said: “This law will be the sword of Damocles hanging over a tiny group of criminals who want to interfere in Hong Kong affairs.”
The Beijing press conference confirmed fears the newly established mainland office could elect to have cases tried in the mainland instead of Hong Kong if they met certain criteria or complexity. It means the new legislation allows for a measure that the government sought but failed to enact last year after sparking protests.
The lengthy briefing provided few reassurances, except that the law would not be applied retrospectively.
China passed the sweeping security law on Tuesday, a historic move decried by many western governments as an unprecedented assault on the finance hub’s liberties and autonomy.
Published just after it went into effect at 11pm, the law lays out penalties including life imprisonment for the crimes of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces.
Alarmingly, the law appears to apply to anyone, whether they are a Hong Kong resident or not, or even in Hong Kong at all.
“If you’ve ever said anything that might offend the PRC [People’s Republic of China] or Hong Kong authorities, stay out of Hong Kong,” said Donald Clarke, law professor at George Washington University.
Hong Kong University legal professor, Eric Cheung, said the laws were worse than he ever expected. “The law does not define national security, meaning that the definition of national security will be defined by the People’s Republic of China national security law,” he said.
Online, Hongkongers expressed concern at Beijing’s confirmation that someone travelling overseas to successfully lobby for sanctions could be charged with foreign collusion offences, or that provoking hatred of police – by spreading “rumours” of violence for instance – could be a national security offence.
“Blatant attack on our free speech,” said human rights researcher Patrick Poon.
They also noted the emergence of a new police warning flag, indicating the increased risks of protesting. “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 HKSAR national security law,” it said.
A Hong Kong police spokesman said people who displayed pro-independence material would face arrest and prosecution under the new law.
US secretary of state Mike Pompeo issued a statement condemning the law. “The CCP [China Communist party] promised Hong Kong 50 years of freedom to the Hong Kong people, and gave them only 23,” said Pompeo.
Echoing the rhetoric of Beijing voiced earlier this year, Pompeo said the US would “not stand idly by while China swallows Hong Kong into its authoritarian maw”.
The US has imposed visa restrictions on Chinese officials linked to the security law, and committed to ending defence and technology exports, and will end Hong Kong’s special status treatment.
Australia’s foreign minister, Marise Payne, again expressed “deep concern”. “The people of Hong Kong will make their own assessments of how this decision will affect their city’s future,” said Payne. “The eyes of the world will remain on Hong Kong.”
Japan’s defence minister, Taro Kono, has warned China’s “unilateral attempt to change the status quo” might jeopardise a planned state visit by Xi Jinping. The timing for Xi’s state visit – delayed by the coronavirus – has yet to be finalised.
Xi’s visit is supposed to demonstrate warmer ties between Beijing and Tokyo after years of disagreements over territory and wartime history.
But conservatives inside the governing party are increasing pressure on Tokyo to abandoned a rescheduled visit, citing the crackdown on freedoms in Hong Kong and repeated incursions by Chinese vessels into waters near the Senkaku islands, which are administered by Japan but claimed by China.
Shen Chunyao, director of the national people’s congress legislative affairs commission, rejected international condemnation and threats of sanctions as “unwarranted accusations” and the “logic of bandits”. The law was “a perfect combination of adhering to the one country prerequisite and respecting the differences of two systems”, he said.
It remains unclear whether Hongkongers will heed the call to protest given the risks posed by the new security law – which came into effect overnight – and increasingly aggressive police tactics towards even peaceful gatherings in recent months.
The 1 July anniversary has long been a polarising day in the semi-autonomous city.
Beijing loyalists celebrate Hong Kong’s return to the Chinese motherland after a century-and-a-half of what many considered humiliating colonial rule by Britain.
Democracy advocates have used the date to hold large protests as popular anger towards Beijing’s rule swells. During last year’s huge pro-democracy demonstrations, the city’s legislature was besieged and trashed by protesters.
For the first time since 1 July flag-raising ceremony began 17 years ago, authorities have banned the annual democracy march, citing fears of unrest and the coronavirus – although local transmissions have ceased.