Hong Kong police have made the first arrests under a new national security law approved by China’s central government.
The arrests came as thousands of people gathered in the center of Hong Kong to mark the anniversary of its return to Chinese rule. Up until July 1, 1997, the city was a British colony.
Wednesday was the first time since 1997 that police officials banned what has become the yearly anniversary protest. Police officers fired pepper spray and tear gas as demonstrators shouted, “resist till the end” and “Hong Kong independence.”
In a message hanging on a purple banner, police warned people against holding up flags or signs or repeating slogans with a goal of subversion or separating from China.
The police force said on social media that it detained about 370 people on charges including possession of weapons and violating the new law.
Among the arrests were a man with a Hong Kong independence flag and a woman holding a sign showing the British flag and calling for Hong Kong’s independence.
“I’m scared of going to jail but for justice I have to come out today, I have to stand up,” said one man who gave his name as Seth to the Reuters news agency.
The new security law deepened concerns in Hong Kong and overseas about the future of the semi-autonomous territory.
China’s government enacted the law in reaction to anti-government protests in Hong Kong last year. It can punish people for crimes of secession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with foreign forces. Those found guilty can face a sentence of up to life in prison.
The measure also gives mainland security agencies the right to operate in Hong Kong and bring people to the mainland for trial.
Under the law, China’s central government can keep close watch of schools, social groups, media organizations, and websites in the former British colony. Central government agencies operating in the city will take over in “complicated cases” and when there is a serious threat to national security. Local officials are barred from interfering while they carry out their duties.
Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam spoke at a ceremony to mark the 23rd anniversary of the city’s return to Chinese rule. She called the new law “the most significant development” in the relationship between China and the territory.
“It is also an essential and timely decision for restoring stability in Hong Kong,” she added.
Critics say the law effectively ends the “one country, two systems” under which Hong Kong was promised a high degree of autonomy.
Reaction from overseas
Britain’s foreign secretary Dominic Raab told reporters Wednesday that the security law “is a clear and serious violation” of the 1997 handover agreement.
Raab announced plans to extend British National Overseas passports for up to 3 million Hong Kongers to five years from the current six-month limit. After five years, passport holders could apply for settled status and then ask for British citizenship 12 months after that.
The United States is moving to end special trade terms for Hong Kong. The Trump administration has said it will bar defense exports to Hong Kong and will soon require permits for the sale of products that have both civilian and military uses.
Also Wednesday, Taiwan’s government opened an office to help Hong Kongers who desire to move to the island. One government official said the move is “not only a statement on Taiwan’s support to Hong Kong’s democracy and freedom, but also highlights our determination to care for Hong Kong people.”
I'm Jonathan Evans.
Hai Do adapted this story for Learning English based on Associated Press and Reuters news reports. George Grow was the editor.
Words in This Story
banner - n. a large strip of cloth with design, writing or picture on it
slogan - n. a word or phrase that is easy to remember and used by a group to get attention
semi-autonomous - adj. having some power to govern itself
secession - n. the act of separating from a nation or state
collusion - n. secret cooperation for an illegal purpose
highlight - v. direct attention to
determination - n. a quality that makes you continue trying to do or achieve something that is difficult