Hong Kong marks handover anniversary under shadow of new security law

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 anniversary comes 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, attended a traditional flag-raising ceremony in the morning in a square where a giant billboard hailing the new law had been erected.

Helicopters flew past carrying a giant Chinese flag and a smaller Hong Kong flag as the “March of the Volunteers” national anthem was played.

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.

Gatherings of more than 50 people are already banned under anti-coronavirus laws, even though local transmissions have ended. 

As the flag-raising ceremony was under way, around 10 veteran pro-democracy campaigners held a protest nearby chanting “End one-party rule” and “Withdraw national security”. 

They were searched by police and followed by officers throughout. 

– Polarising anniversary –

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 many considered humiliating colonial rule by Britain.

But 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 the ceremony began 17 years ago, authorities have banned the annual July 1 democracy march, citing fears of unrest and the coronavirus.

Ahead of the 1997 handover by Britain, authoritarian China guaranteed Hong Kong civil liberties — as well as judicial and legislative autonomy — for 50 years in a deal known as “One Country, Two Systems”.

The 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. 

– Chinese jurisdiction and life sentences –

Critics have long accused Beijing of chipping away at that status, but they describe the security law as the most brazen move yet.

Passage of the legislation was speedy and opaque even by Beijing’s standards.

The law was passed in just six weeks, skipping Hong Kong’s fractious legislature, and the precise wording was kept secret from the city’s 7.5 million inhabitants until it came into effect on Tuesday evening.

It outlaws subversion, secession, terrorism and colluding with foreign forces to undermine national security with sentences up to life in prison.

The new suite of powers radically restructures the relationship between Beijing and Hong Kong, toppling 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, unbound by local laws as they carry out their duties. 

Twenty-seven 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.

Washington — which has embarked on a trade war with China — has said the security law means Hong Kong no longer enjoys sufficient autonomy from the mainland to justify special status. 

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned of new countermeasures after the security law’s passing.

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.

by Jerome TAYLOR