Hong Kong marked the 23rd anniversary of its handover to China on Wednesday under the glare of a new national security law imposed by Beijing, with protests banned and the city’s cherished freedoms looking increasingly fragile.
The commemorations came a day after China passed a sweeping security law for the city, a historic move decried by many Western governments as an unprecedented assault on the finance hub’s liberties and autonomy.
Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam, a pro-Beijing appointee, hailed the law as the “most important development” since the city’s return to Chinese rule in 1997 as she attended a traditional flag-raising ceremony.
But opprobrium poured in from critics and western governments — led by Washington — over fears the law will usher in a new era of mainland-style political repression.
Under a deal ahead of the handover 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.
Hong Kong activists have called on people to defy a ban on protests and march through the city’s main island on Wednesday afternoon.
But it is unclear whether residents will heed that call 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.
Police fanned out across the city’s main island on Wednesday morning, frequently conducting stop and searches.
Gatherings of more than 50 people are already banned under anti-coronavirus laws, even though local transmissions have ended.
Floats and helicopters
During the morning handover ceremony helicopters flew past carrying a large Chinese flag and a smaller Hong Kong flag. A giant float appeared in Victoria Harbour with the words “Welcome the Enacting of the National Security Law”.
Not far from the venue 10 veteran pro-democracy campaigners held a protest chanting “End one-party rule” and “Withdraw national security”.
They were searched by police and followed by officers throughout.
The July 1 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 they consider humiliating colonial rule by Britain.
But democracy advocates have used the date to hold large protests as popular anger towards Beijing swells.
During last year’s huge pro-democracy demonstrations, the city’s legislature was besieged and trashed by protesters.
For the first time since the ceremony began 17 years ago, authorities have banned the annual July 1 democracy march.
Chinese jurisdiction and life sentences
Hong Kong’s “One Country, Two Systems” formula helped cement the city’s status as a world-class business hub, bolstered by an independent judiciary and political freedoms unseen on the mainland.
Critics have long accused Beijing of chipping away at that status, but they describe the security law as the most brazen move yet.
The law was passed in just six weeks, skipping Hong Kong’s fractious legislature, and the precise wording was kept secret until it came into effect.
It outlaws subversion, secession, terrorism and colluding with foreign forces to undermine national security with sentences up to life in prison.
In a radical restructuring of the relationship between Beijing and Hong Kong, the law 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.
More than two dozen countries, including Britain, France, Germany and Japan, urged Beijing to “reconsider the imposition” of the legislation, saying in a statement to the UN Human Rights Council that it “undermines” the city’s freedoms.
Beijing says the law will restore stability after a year of pro-democracy protests and will not end Hong Kong’s freedoms.
Critics have little faith in those assurances given how similar national security laws are routinely used on the authoritarian mainland to crush dissent.
The law is a response to huge and often violent pro-democracy protests last year.
Millions took to the streets while a smaller hard core of protesters frequently battled police in vicious confrontations that saw more than 9,000 arrested.