Riot police fire tear gas to clear protesters at a rally against a new national security law in Hong Kong on July 1, 2020, the 23rd anniversary of the city's handover from Britain to China. Photo: Dale de la Rey / AFP

Thousands of protesters took to the streets in Hong Kong on Wednesday in defiance of a highly-contentious national security law, despite the threat of facing life in prison.

Demonstrators made their voices heard on the 23rd anniversary of the city’s handover from British rule to mainland China in 1997.

More than 300 people were arrested for holding an illegal gathering, with nine under the new legislation, as police used teargas and water cannon to disperse the protesters. One officer was stabbed in the shoulder as he tried to make an arrest.

“What this authoritarian regime wants to do is to terrorize the people and stop them from coming out,” Chris To, a 49-year-old protester, told the media.

The July 1 day of action commemorations came hours after Beijing had imposed what critics claim is a draconian security law in Hong Kong after a summer of discontent last year.

Under an agreement ahead of the 1997 transition of power, the United Kingdom hammered out a deal with China that guaranteed the city civil liberties, as well as independent judicial and legislative autonomy until 2047.

A protester uses a sharp object against a police officer who is trying to detain a man (C) during a rally against a new national security law in Hong Kong on July 1, 2020. Photo: AFP

The “One Country, Two Systems” was designed to safeguard Hong Kong’s role as a thriving global financial center and its special status within the world’s second-largest economy.

Many feel that promise has been broken after the United States, the European Union and the UK expressed deep concerns over the security law. Crimes of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces are now punishable by a minimum of three years in prison, with a maximum sentence of life.

“[China] promised 50 years of freedom to the Hong Kong people and gave them only 23,” Mike Pompeo, the US Secretary of State, said before promising unspecified sanctions.

In the UK, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government described the move as a “grave step” and “deeply troubling.”

Immigration rights would also be extended to more than one million British National Overseas passport holders in the city along with their dependents. “That is precisely what we will do now,” Johnson told the UK Parliament. 

Chris Patten, the last colonial governor of Hong Kong, called the legislation “the end” of the “One Country, Two Systems” model. 

“It is a flagrant breach of the Sino-British Joint Declaration, a treaty lodged at the United Nations, and Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, the Basic Law,” he said.

Riot police detain a man as they clear protesters taking part in a rally against a new national security law in Hong Kong on July 1, 2020. Photo: AFP

Even the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva waded into the controversy. Twenty-seven countries, including the UK, France, Germany, Australia and Japan, issued a rare rebuke to China, describing “deep and growing concerns.”

Ursula von der Leyen, the EU Commission President, joined the chorus of condemnation.

“[We] have made clear on several occasions, including in our direct contact last week with the Chinese leadership, the new legislation does not conform with Hong Kong’s basic law nor with China’s international commitments both in terms of adoption procedure and in substance,” she said.

“We’re very clear on that topic that for us it’s critical and we’re very seriously concerned about it,” von der Leyen added.

The security law was passed in just six weeks after being rubber-stamped by the National People’s Congress in May. The key points are:

  • Crimes of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces are punishable by a minimum sentence of three years, with the maximum being life.
  • Inciting hatred of China’s central Communist Party government and Hong Kong’s regional government are now offenses under Article 29 of the amended Basic Law.
  • Damaging public transport facilities can be considered terrorism after protesters targeted city infrastructure during the long-running demonstrations, which at times turned violent, in 2019.
  • Beijing will set up a security office in Hong Kong, with its own law enforcement personnel, which would not come under local authority’s jurisdiction.
  • Hong Kong’s chief executive can appoint judges in national security cases and decisions made by the national security commission cannot be challenged legally.
  • China will take over prosecution in cases that are considered “very serious,” while some trials will be heard behind closed doors.
  • Management of foreign non-governmental organizations and news agencies will be strengthened.

In short, this will erode the city’s independent judiciary, according to the city’s Democratic Party. “[This is the end of] ‘One Country, Two Systems’ [and] completely destroys Hong Kong’s judicial independence.”

In response, Hong Kong’s local government leader Carrie Lam defended the law, pointing out that it filled a “gaping hole” in national security. Beijing went even further, warning critical foreign governments to stop meddling in China’s domestic affairs.

Protesters chant slogans during a rally against a new national security law in Hong Kong on July 1. Photo: AFP / Dale De La Ray

Officials insisted there had been widespread consultation with Hong Kong and stressed that criticism of the decision was undermining the city’s autonomy.

“What’s this got to do with you?” Zhang Xiaoming, of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office of the State Council, told a media briefing in reference to global condemnation. “It’s none of your business.

“If what we want is one country, one system, it would have been simple. We are completely able to impose the criminal law, the criminal procedure and the national security law and other national laws on Hong Kong,” he said.

“Why would we need to put so much effort into formulating a national security law tailor-made for Hong Kong? As for … some countries now saying that they will impose severe sanctions on some Chinese officials, I think this is the logic of bandits,” Zhang added.

Police officers block a street in Hong Kong’s Causeway Bay. Photo: Asia Times

– with reporting from AFP