Hong Kong ushered in a new chapter of its history on Wednesday with water cannon, tear gas, pepper spray and rubber bullets, as police clashed on the streets with thousands of people protesting against the city’s controversial new security law.
Organisers pushed ahead with a protest rally on the 1 July anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover from British to Chinese rule, despite police refusing to grant it permission – citing the coronavirus pandemic – for the first time in 23 years.
More than 370 people were arrested, many for illegal assembly, but 10 were detained under the new legislation banning “secessionist” activities and “subversion” of the Chinese state.
They included a man who marched carrying a Hong Kong independence flag, and a woman joining in chants for a free Hong Kong while displaying the Union Jack.
The new law, which critics say will undermine citizens’ right to protest and end the city’s judicial autonomy, was signed into law by Chinese president Xi Jinping and came into effect on Tuesday night.
The UK government said the legislation was a “clear and serious violation” of the 1997 handover agreement, which was supposed to protect the freeedoms people in Hong Kong enjoy that those in mainland China do not. Speaking in the House of Commons, Boris Johnson vowed to press ahead with plans to open up visa regulations for some three million Hong Kong citizens.
At a government event marking the anniversary, the city’s chief executive Carrie Lam praised the new law as the most important development since the city’s return to China. She said it was “necessary and timely to maintain Hong Kong’s stability”, while a senior Communist Party official called it a “birthday gift” to the city.
Yet a recent Reuters poll found that the majority in the city oppose the new law, and across Hong Kong thousands turned out to protest in spite of clear police warnings, displayed on purple banners, that doing so could represent a violation of the new law.
At least one metro stop was closed during the clashes. One 35-year-old protester, who gave his name as Seth, told the Reuters news agency: “I’m scared of going to jail, but for justice I have to come out today, I have to stand up.”
Pro-democracy politician Kwok Ka-ki said: “I saw this morning there are celebrations for Hong Kong’s handover, but to me it is a funeral, a funeral for ‘one country two systems’.”
Police said in a statement on Twitter that they also gave multiple verbal warnings for demonstrators in the Causeway Bay shopping district to disperse before moving in to break up the protests by force.
Some fires were set by protesters and barricades set up in streets as the clashes continued into the evening, with police in riot gear unblocking streets and scattering demonstrators only for them to re-emerge in numbers elsewhere.
The game of cat-and-mouse was reminiscent of the scenes on last year’s anniversary, which came amid much larger protests against a proposed extradition law. Those culminated in activists storming the city’s Legislative Council building.
In another post on Twitter, police shared images of an officer with a bleeding arm saying he was stabbed by “rioters holding sharp objects.” The suspects fled, while bystanders offered no help, police said.
Authorities in Beijing and Hong Kong have repeatedly said the legislation is aimed at a small minority of “troublemakers” and will not affect the rights and freedoms of the majority, nor the investor interests that make the city a global financial hub.
There are particular concerns for the fate of pro-democracy movement leaders, who are likely to face the most serious charges under the new law that carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.
On Tuesday, Joshua Wong and a number of other high-profile activists disbanded the opposition Demosisto party, and painted a bleak picture for the future of the pro-democracy movement. Beijing has said that while the new law has sweeping geographical scope to cover anti-Hong Kong activities anywhere in the world, it will not be applied retroactively.
In downtown Hong Kong, journalists posted on social media that they appeared to have been directly targeted by police with water cannon and other riot control measures. One video showed a journalist taking pictures of emergency responders administering first aid to someone in a doorway, but the photographer was knocked to the ground by a single blast of water.
Other videos showed people marching past closed shops chanting for Hong Kong’s independence, well after the first arrests under the new law had been made.
Among the international community, the EU joined Britain in condemning the new security law on Wednesday, with the European Council president Charles Michel calling it “deplorable”.
In the US, where the Trump administration has threatened to revoke Hong Kong’s special trading status over the legislation, the influential House Foreign Affairs Committee held a hearing into whether the law marked “the end of ‘one country, two systems'”.
During the hearing, House speaker Nancy Pelosi described the law as “a brutal, sweeping crackdown… intended to destroy the freedoms they were promised”.