Hong Kong awoke to its first day under controversial national security laws imposed by Beijing, with activists calling for further protests and China confirming some suspects could be extradited to the mainland under the new rules.
The city’s leader, Carrie Lam, told a ceremony marking the 23rd anniversary of its handover to China on Wednesday that the 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.
On Tuesday, 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.
On Wednesday morning, Hong Kong politicians and dignitaries gathered in far greater numbers than those legally allowed by the city’s anti-pandemic measures for a flag-raising ceremony to mark the anniversary. Nearby, on Victoria harbour, a huge barge floated bright red and yellow lettering to celebrate the new law.
Lam said the past year – which saw the city paralysed by protests – was “the most severe challenge” in her four decades of civil service, but said she believed such difficulties would pass with support from Beijing.
She then led the crowd in a toast, clinking champagne flutes with the Hong Kong and Beijing representatives lined up on stage. “To the success and affluence of our motherland to the prosperity and stability of Hong Kong – cheers!”
The mood differed outside, with protesters holding placards and burning signs referring to the new laws. 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.