Hong Kong police have made their first arrests under a sweeping new national security law imposed on the Asian financial hub by Beijing that has drawn swift international condemnation.
A day after Chinese President Xi Jinping signed the legislation into law in Beijing, Hong Kong police on Wednesday cracked down on protesters who had gathered to mark the 23rd anniversary of the territory’s handover from the UK to China.
Riot police pepper-sprayed and detained protesters at a demonstration in a busy shopping district after officers displayed a banner warning them that they might be committing a secession- or subversion-related crime by joining the demonstration.
Police tweeted a picture of a man arrested for carrying a Hong Kong independence flag — an illegal item under the new law, which punishes activities such as secession with up to life imprisonment.
“This is the first arrest since the law came into force,” the police said. They said they had arrested more than 30 people for violation of the national security law, illegal assembly, obstructing police and possession of offensive weapons.
The US, Europe and Australia have condemned the legislation, which critics said undermined the high degree of autonomy and rule of law promised to Hong Kong on its handover in 1997.
Apart from secession, crimes such as terrorism, subversion and collusion with foreign elements will also attract penalties of up to life imprisonment.
The Trump administration said the security law was a “violation” of China’s commitments under the Sino-British Joint Declaration that established Hong Kong as an autonomous region.
“As Beijing now treats Hong Kong as ‘One Country, One System’, so must the United States,” said John Ullyot, the National Security Council spokesperson.
“The United States will continue to take strong actions against those who smothered Hong Kong’s freedom and autonomy. We urge Beijing to reverse course immediately.”
The law will allow Chinese state security agencies to operate openly in Hong Kong for the first time. The legislation applies to people in Hong Kong and to those not in the territory.
That means that foreign nationals who speak in favour of independence for the region, or advocate sanctions against China, could be prosecuted upon entering Hong Kong or mainland China.
Damaging public transport with intent to cause “serious social harm” is considered a terrorist act under the new law, which also gives Beijing the power to adjudicate national security crimes when requested by Hong Kong’s new state security bureau.
On Tuesday Marise Payne, Australia’s foreign minister, said: “Australia is troubled by the law’s implications for Hong Kong’s judicial independence, and on the rights and freedoms enjoyed by the people of Hong Kong, both of which underpin the city’s success.” She added that “the eyes of the world will remain on Hong Kong”.
Dominic Raab, the UK foreign secretary, said the law was a “grave step, which is deeply troubling”.
Brussels also criticised the passage of the law. “We deplore the decision,” said Charles Michel, president of the European Council of leaders of EU member states. “This law risks seriously undermining the high degree of autonomy of Hong Kong and having a detrimental effect on the independence of the judiciary and the rule of law.”