HONG KONG - Hong Kong police arrested at least 10 people under a new national security law on Wednesday (July 1), shortly after the legislation took effect, as thousands gathered in mass protests on the anniversary of the city's handover to China.
Police fired tear gas, pepper balls and used water cannon to disperse activists in Causeway Bay, the traditional venue for large demonstrations, and Wan Chai. Authorities have locked down the area, closing off key roads to control traffic.
More than 370 people have been arrested so far for offences including unlawful assembly, disorderly conduct in public, obstructing police and possession of weapons, police said in the evening.
Ten people - six men and four women - were held for breaching the national security law. The first person arrested under the new law was a man who was caught holding a Hong Kong independence flag, according to the police. Some of the others were rounded up for showing materials carrying Hong Kong independence slogans.
Seven police officers were injured in the day's operations and taken to hospital, police said. The injuries included stabbing wounds, finger fractures and head injuries.
An officer was stabbed in the arm by protesters who fled after the deed, the police force said in a tweet that showed bloody photos of an injured officer being attended to.
Protesters blocked and occupied multiple lanes in Causeway Bay and Wan Chai, forcing vehicles to stop.
Some dismantled banners hung on railings along the roadside and threw them onto the carriageway. Others obstructed traffic using dismantled railings and rubbish bins, and set fire to barricades in the vicinity, posing a danger to public safety.
Hours after the demonstrations began in the afternoon, thousands remained defiant, chanting what are now illegal pro-independence slogans and singing the prohibited protest anthem despite warnings from the police.
Shouts of "Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our time" and "Hong Kong independence, only way out" sounded across streets.
As the protesters occupied parts of Hennessy Road doing so, some raised six fingers to represent the six demands including universal suffrage and independent probe into allegations of abuse of authority by the police.
A bystander, who wanted to be known only as Ms Zheng, said: “There are freedoms right? They (China) said no changes for 50 years. Look around now, everything has changed hasn’t it? Isn’t it laughable?”
Hours before the demonstrations began, Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam had declared that the new national security law would be a historic step forward for the relationship between the city and mainland China.
"The legislation of the national security law is considered the most important development in relations between the central government and Hong Kong since the handover," Mrs Lam said.
Calling it a “necessary and timely” move to restore stability, she said the law only targets an extremely small number of people who threaten national security, and that most people’s property, basic rights and freedoms would be safeguarded.
Speaking at the reception held to mark the 23rd anniversary of the change from British rule to the Chinese, Mrs Lam was visibly emotional as she recounted how the past year has been the most challenging time in her career as she faced vicious personal attacks while worrying about the city’s future.
She promised to use the last two years of her tenure to revive Hong Kong’s economy and its global reputation, rebuild the government’s relationship with the young and restore social order.
Chief of Beijing’s liaison office in Hong Kong Luo Huining said having the law is a turning point for the city to help it move from chaos to order.
He noted that the central government has not imposed taxes on the city and instead rolled out a series of beneficial measures which show that it means well.
The speeches came after dozens of officials and guests, including former leaders Tung Chee Hwa, Leung Chun Ying and Donald Tsang, Chief Justice Geoffrey Ma and Mr Luo, witnessed the annual flag-raising event at Golden Bauhinia Square.
The flag-raising ceremony was canned last year at the peak of the often-violent anti-government movement that lasted more than half a year.
The Civil Human Rights Front (CHRF), organiser of some of the city’s biggest demonstrations, on Tuesday night told the media that its appeal against a police ban on the annual July 1 march was dismissed.
The ban is the first since the territory’s handover to Chinese rule in 1997.
But CHRF deputy convenor Figo Chan pledged to march anyway, while Democratic Party chairman Wu Chi Wai urged people to protest peacefully to protect Hong Kong’s core values.
Pan-democratic lawmakers on Tuesday night, just hours before the law took effect, said there was a lack of transparency in the way the law was rushed through.
They described the law as the death knell for the “one country, two systems” principle where Hong Kong is guaranteed a high degree of autonomy.
Security has been beefed up in the days leading to the handover anniversary, with 3,000 to 6,000 policemen deployed and roads closed, local media reported.