Hong Kong officials Wednesday commemorated the 23rd anniversary of the city’s handover from the United Kingdom to China, just hours after the central Chinese government enforced a controversial new national security law — which aims to clamp down on anti-government protests in the semi-autonomous region.
In the wake of heightened unrest and a growing pro-democracy movement, Beijing passed the sweeping new legislation — which critics claim has cast a shadow on the freedoms enjoyed by Hong Kong’s 74.5 lakh residents for over two decades. According to the new laws, anyone who is found “undermining national unification” of Hong Kong with the mainland could face a punishment as severe as life imprisonment.
Hong Kong leaders participate in handover ceremony
Meanwhile, Hong Kong’s top leaders gathered near the Victoria harbour on Wednesday morning for the annual handover ceremony. Helicopters carrying large Chinese flags along with smaller Hong Kong flags were seen hovering over the venue, AFP reported. A float bearing the words ‘Welcome the Enacting of the National Security Law’ also made an appearance at the ceremony.
Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing leader Carrie Lam delivered a speech, in which she hailed the new law as the “most important development” since the territory was returned to China in 1997. “The national security law is a turning point for Hong Kong from chaos to being governed well,” Lam said, while addressing the dignitaries attending the ceremony.
She stressed that the law “will not undermine Hong Kong’s judicial independence and high degree of autonomy, and won’t affect the Hong Kong people’s freedoms and rights.” Lam claimed that the legislation filled a “gaping hole” in national security, BBC reported.
The ceremony, held on July 1 every year, marks the day that the former British colony of Hong Kong was officially brought back under the control of the Chinese mainland, ending 156 years of colonial rule. As per an agreement brokered by the leaders of both nations, which came to be known as the ‘One country, two systems’ plan, Hong Kong was to enjoy greater freedoms and a semi-autonomous status for 50 years, till 2047.
Protests persist despite ban
Despite the ban on all anti-government demonstrations, 10 campaigners gathered very close to the harbour to protest against the new laws. The veteran pro-democracy protestors were seen holding placards and burning signs, while chanting “end one-party rule” and “withdraw national security”, according to AFP’s report.
The protestors were closely observed and followed by law enforcement authorities and were later searched and questioned, as per reports. The night before, Hong Kong police were directed to arrest anyone who was found holding an independence flag or chanting for independence, CNN reported quoting a police source.
This year, an annual democracy rally held by civil society was barred by the city’s administration due to a ban on gatherings of more than 50 people due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. However, several activists had called on protestors from across the city to actively defy the orders by participating in a march on Wednesday afternoon, Al Jazeera reported.
Beijing unfazed by global criticism
Several countries — including the United States, the European Union, Japan and Taiwan — condemned Beijing’s decision to pass the contentious law, as per which people arrested for their alleged involvement in anti-government demonstrations could be tried on the mainland.
Calling Beijing’s decision “deplorable”, the leaders of the European Union announced that the bloc would step up its efforts to reassess its economic relationship with China.
UK foreign minister Dominic Raab said that the country would soon provide visas and facilitate the citizenship process for millions of Hong Kong British National Overseas passport holders, the Guardian reported.
Meanwhile, United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that the national security legislation “destroys the territory’s autonomy and one of China’s greatest achievements.” He added that it was a “sad day for Hong Kong, and for freedom-loving people across China.”
Top government officials in Tokyo called the new laws “regrettable”, as they undermined the “One country, two systems” plan laid out in 1997.
Chinese-claimed Taiwan too expressed its disappointment over the enforcement of the legislation. The democratic island-nation Wednesday opened an office to help those who were choosing to flee Hong Kong, Reuters reported.
Being has repeatedly denied stifling Hong Kong’s freedoms, stating that the laws were necessary to maintain national security. As per the law, Hong Kong will soon begin promoting national security education through schools and media, CNBC reported.
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