HONG KONG -- Police in Hong Kong made their first arrests of protesters since the city's new national security law came into effect late on Tuesday.
As of 8:30 p.m. Wednesday local time, more than 300 people had been arrested on charges of illegal assembly, furious driving and breaching the security law during an afternoon demonstration to mark the 23rd anniversary of the former British colony's handover to China.
At least nine people were arrested under the new law, at least one of whom was holding a Hong Kong independence flag. Activists who display pro-independence material will face arrest and prosecution under the new security law, a police spokesperson said.
The controversial legislation outlaws activities pertaining to separatism, subversion, terrorism and collusion in support of foreign interference. Violators can be extradited to mainland China for trial in courts directly under Communist Party's control and face a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.
With riot police deploying a water cannon, cordons and pepper spray to keep marchers off the main local road between the shopping district of Causeway Bay and the center city, tens of thousands took to secondary streets. Unlike past protests, few carried signs or banners or coordinated their outfits in black.
The masks that might have marked individuals out before as protesters have become universal with the coronavirus pandemic and umbrellas were a normal sight for a hot summer day. Chanting of protest slogans was intermittent and limited, though the now-forbidden call of "Revolution of our times!" echoed from the open plaza crossing under the Times Square shopping mall as more young people poured out from a subway exit.
A special unit has already been set up under the Hong Kong Police Force to handle law enforcement for national security cases, security minister John Lee Ka-chiu said on Wednesday. A security commission directly reporting to the central government will also be set up in the territory.
The law has drawn fierce criticism from the international community, as it is seen as a breach of Hong Kong's "one country, two systems" principle, which guarantees people in the city a high degree of autonomy and civil liberties that are absent in the rest of China.
Citing coronavirus restrictions, city authorities prohibited the annual protest that was arranged by the Civil Human Rights Front, the organizer of last year's massive rallies. But pro-democracy lawmakers and activists have urged people to defy the ban and take to the streets.
Speaking at a flag-raising ceremony on Wednesday morning, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam said the law is "the most important milestone to strengthen the 'one country, two systems' framework."
"The legislation will protect the majority of people who abide by the laws," Lam said. "It's a turning point for Hong Kong to restore stability,"
Meanwhile, pro-democracy lawmakers said the new law has certified the death of "one country, two systems."
"We didn't even have the chance to take look at the clauses of the law until it took effect," said Civic Party lawmaker Tanya Chan. "It's ridiculous and unacceptable."
In Beijing, Chinese government officials said Wednesday the law will not affect the freedoms and rule of law that Hong Kong has enjoyed, even as it grants the central government jurisdiction over cases under "certain circumstances."
"Such arrangements will only target the extreme few," said Zhang Xiaoming, deputy director of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, who described the law as a "guardian deity" and a "birthday gift" for the territory. "It only applies when the situation exceeds the realm of self-governance and involves state secrets."
Zhang also called on the pan-democratic camp in Hong Kong to "rethink and adjust" their behaviors and strategy.
Additional reporting by Kenji Kawase and Zach Coleman in Hong Kong