Police arrest more than 300 people as protesters hit streets in defiance of sweeping security law introduced by China in the semi-autonomous city.

People detained by riot police officers are seen during a march against national security law in Hong Kong, China July 1, 2020.
People detained by riot police officers are seen during a march against national security law in Hong Kong, China July 1, 2020. (Reuters)

Hong Kong police have arrested more than 300 people –– including nine under China's new national security law –– as thousands defied a ban on protests on the anniversary of the city's handover to China.

Police on Wednesday used water cannon, pepper spray and tear gas throughout in a series of confrontations with protesters, a day after China drew global criticism for imposing the controversial legislation on the financial hub.

Beijing said the law would restore stability after nearly a year of unrest, but instead it sparked the worst street violence in months.

Details released by police accused those arrested under the new legislation of possessing independence flags, stickers, and flyers.

Anti-Bejing protests

"Advocacy for the independence of Hong Kong is against the law," security minister John Lee told reporters. 

Still, many of those protesting chanted independence slogans –– itself now against the law.

"What this authoritarian regime wants to do is to terrorise the people and stop them from coming out," Chris To, a 49-year-old anti-Beijing protester, told AFP news agency.

Hong Kong marks China rule

Earlier on Wednesday, Hong Kong's leader strongly endorsed the new security law in her speech marking anniversary of the city's handover from colonial Britain.

"This decision was necessary and timely to maintain Hong Kong’s stability," Carrie Lam said following a flag-raising ceremony and the playing of China's national anthem.

A pro-democracy political party, The League of Social Democrats, organised a protest march during the flag-raising ceremony preceding Lam’s speech. 

About a dozen participants chanted slogans echoing demands from protesters last year for political reform and an investigation into accusation of police abuse.

The law’s passage on Tuesday further blurs the distinction between the legal systems of semi-autonomous Hong Kong, which maintained aspects of British law after the 1997 handover, and the mainland’s authoritarian Communist Party system. 

Critics say the law effectively ends the “one country, two systems” framework under which Hong Kong was promised a high degree of autonomy.

The law directly targets some of the actions of anti-government protesters last year, which included attacks on government offices and police stations, damage to subway stations, and the shutdown of the city’s international airport. 

Acts of vandalism against government facilities or public transit can be prosecuted as subversion or terrorism, while anyone taking part in activities deemed as secessionist would also be in violation of the new law.

The law takes immediate effect and its consequences could come swiftly. Hong Kong's police force issued a statement saying they would consider as illegal any flag or banner raised by protesters deemed to be promoting Hong Kong's separation from China or expressing support for independence for Tibet,  Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region and the self-governing island democracy of Taiwan that China claims as its own.

Concerns have also been raised over the fate of key opposition figures, some of whom have already been charged for taking part in protests, as well as the disqualification of candidates for the Legislative Council elections scheduled for September.

Life imprisonment

Under the law, those found guilty of inciting secessionist, subversive, terrorist activities and colluding with foreign forces could face life imprisonment if they are deemed masterminds of such activities.

Schools, social groups, media outlets, websites and others unspecified will be monitored and their national security awareness will be raised, according to the text, while China’s central government will have authority over the activities of foreign non-governmental organisations and media outlets in Hong Kong.

It says central government bodies in Hong Kong will take over in “complicated cases” and when there is a serious threat to national security. Local authorities are barred from interfering with central government bodies operating in Hong Kong while they are carrying out their duties, according to the text.

The legislation was mandated under Hong Kong’s local constitution but an earlier attempt to pass it in the city’s legislative body in 2003 was shelved in the face of massive public opposition. Having lost patience, Beijing finally decided to circumvent the Hong Kong legislature and have it passed on Tuesday by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, China’s rubber-stamp parliament.

President Xi Jinping signed a presidential order putting the law into effect and it has been added to the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s constitution.

Washington reacts 

The US has already begun moves to end special trade terms given to the territory. 

The Trump administration has also said it will bar defense exports to Hong Kong and will soon require licenses for the sale of items that have both civilian and military uses, citing the possibility of them falling into the hands of the People’s Liberation Army, which owes its loyalty to China's ruling Communist Party.

Congress has also moved to impose sanctions on people deemed connected to political repression in Hong Kong, including police officials, while Britain has said it could offer residency and possible citizenship to about 3 million of Hong Kong’s 7.5 million people.

China has said it will impose visa restrictions on Americans it sees as interfering over Hong Kong.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo denounced the threat of a visa ban as a sign of “how Beijing refuses to take responsibility for its own choices" and said the law's adoption “destroys the territory’s autonomy and one of China’s greatest achievements.”

Beijing’s “paranoia and fear of its own people’s aspirations have led it to eviscerate the very foundation of the territory’s success”, Pompeo said in a statement.

The law’s passage comes after Hong Kong’s legislature in early June approved a contentious bill making it illegal to insult the Chinese national anthem. Pro-China figures have also been pushing for more “patriotic” education to be introduced into the curriculum in hopes that will boost their identification with Beijing.

READ MORE: China tells foreign critics 'none of your business' on Hong Kong law

UK offers Hong Kongers citizenship 

Also on Wednesday, Britain extended Hong Kong residents a broader path to citizenship in response to China's sweeping new security law.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson's announcement represents the most direct international response to legislation that has been roundly condemned by Western allies.

It comes during a London review of its entire range of relations with Beijing, including its decision to allow China's Huawei help build Britain new 5G data network.

"We stand for rules and obligations," Prime Minister Boris Johnson told parliament just hours after China made its first arrest in Hong Kong under the new legislation.

"And we think that is the scientific basis for our international relations and the enactment, and deposition of this national security law constitutes a clear and serious breach of the Sino-British Joint Declaration."

Johnson said London had warned Beijing that it would introduce a new route for those with British National Overseas status to enter the UK.

"And that is precisely what we will do now," he told lawmakers.

About 300,000 Hong Kongers have BNO passports and another 2.6 million are eligible to apply.

Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said Britain's offer also extended to dependents of those with BNO status but refused to be drawn about how many would apply.

Source: AP