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300 arrested in Hong Kong as China's new "national security" law comes into force

Hundreds of Hong Kong protesters arreste
Hundreds of Hong Kong protesters arreste 02:37

China's controversial new national security law — tailor-made to bring Hong Kong's massive pro-democracy movement to heel — came into full effect overnight, and by Wednesday evening police had arrested more than 300 protesters. Nine people were arrested specifically for violating the new legislation, which was imposed directly by Beijing and the Communist Party on the semi-autonomous region.

Some of the nine were arrested for possessing items calling for the independence of Hong Kong, in contravention of the new "national security" law, which criminalizes attempts to split Hong Kong from China, overthrow the city's government, commit acts of terror or collude with foreign powers.

Critics say the law is worded so broadly that it will allow Beijing to use it to quash freedoms of speech and assembly, political dissent and the independent judiciary — all of which have been protected or allowed in Hong Kong for decades, unlike in mainland China.

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Riot police detain a man as they raise a warning flag during a demonstration against the new national security law on July 1, 2020 in Hong Kong, China. Anthony Kwan/Getty

Law professors note that the legislation does not stop at Hong Kong's border, but applies to every person on the planet — even if they are not Hong Kong citizens. One expert said anyone deemed to have violated the law could be subject to arrest if they set foot in the southern Chinese region.

Despite the threat of prison terms ranging from three years to life, thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators and anti-China activists hit Hong Kong's streets in anger and defiance on Wednesday. But the atmosphere was tinged with a new sense of sadness, and fear, with the new law in force.

Police warned gathering crowds to disperse before pepper spraying and arresting people, including some former pro-democracy legislators. As during the protests of 2019, authorities again deployed water cannon, tear gas and rubber bullets.

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The main goal of the police was to stop a planned illegal march — one that had been held legally every July 1 for the past few decades — that protests China's Communist Party. This year, police banned the march, citing public safety because of the coronavirus.

Hong Kong's Beijing-appointed Chief Executive Carrie Lam said the new law would "restore prosperity" to the global financial hub, which has been rocked by both peaceful and violent protests since last year, pulling the territory into a deep recession.

In contrast to protests on the street, there was a celebratory mood at the leadership level. Wednesday is the 23rd anniversary of Hong Kong's return to China following 99 years of British colonial rule. For Hong Kong's top leaders, the day began with a traditional raising ceremony of both the Chinese and Hong Kong flags, along with a helicopter flyby and a fireboat salute.

The United Kingdom said China's new national security law was a "clear and serious" violation of the Joint Declaration the two powers signed before the former British colony reverted to Chinese rule in 1997.

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Hong Kong's autonomy was guaranteed under the "one country, two systems" agreement enshrined in the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration, signed by then Chinese Premier Zhao Ziyang and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

On Wednesday, British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab told Reuters the new law, "constitutes a clear violation of the autonomy of Hong Kong, and a direct threat to the freedoms of its people… therefore I'm afraid to say it is a clear and serious violation of the Joint Declaration treaty between the United Kingdom and China."

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the U.K. would soon open a path to citizenship for up to 3 million Hong Kong citizens, who are still classified as British Nationals Overseas.  

In Washington, the U.S. House of Representatives' Foreign Affairs Committee posted a message on Twitter, saying it, "stands against the Chinese government's termination of the "one country, two systems" arrangement, and w/ our friends in #HongKong."  

Many critics agree that the "one country, two systems" policy is now dead, replaced unilaterally by China with an unofficial, "one country, one system."

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