Hong Kong police made their first arrests Wednesday under a new national security law imposed a day earlier by China's central government, as thousands of people defied tear gas and pepper pellets to protest against it.
Police said nine people were arrested under the law, including a man with a Hong Kong independence flag and a woman holding a sign displaying the British flag and calling for Hong Kong's independence. Others were detained for possessing items advocating independence. Further details were not immediately available.
Hong Kong police said on Facebook that they arrested more than 300 people on various charges, including unlawful assembly, possession of weapons and violating the national security law.
The arrests came as thousands took to the streets Wednesday on the 23rd anniversary of Britain's handover of Hong Kong to China in 1997. For the first time, police banned this year's annual march. Protesters shouted slogans, lambasted police and held up signs condemning the Chinese government and the new security law.
The law, imposed by China after last year's anti-government protests in the semi-autonomous region, took effect Tuesday night.
The law makes secessionist, subversive or terrorist activities illegal, as well as foreign intervention in the region's internal affairs.
Any person taking part in secessionist activities, such as shouting slogans or holding up banners and flags calling for the region's independence, is in violation of the law regardless of whether violence is used.
The most serious offenders, such as those deemed to be masterminds behind the crimes, could receive a maximum punishment of life imprisonment. Lesser offenders could receive jail terms of up to three years, short-term detention or restriction.
Suspects arrested by the mainland's new office in Hong Kong on charges of violating the new national security law will be tried in the mainland, a senior Chinese government official said on Wednesday.
The Canadian government updated its travel advisory for Hong Kong on Tuesday, warning travellers they "may be at increased risk of arbitrary detention on national security grounds and possible extradition to mainland China."
Hong Kong's leader strongly endorsed the new law in her speech marking the anniversary of the city's handover from colonial Britain.
"This decision was necessary and timely to maintain Hong Kong's stability," Carrie Lam said following a flag-raising ceremony and the playing of China's national anthem.
A pro-democracy political party, The League of Social Democrats, organized a protest march during the flag-raising ceremony. About a dozen participants chanted slogans echoing demands from protesters last year for political reform and an investigation into accusations of police abuse.
The law's passage Tuesday further blurs the distinction between the legal systems of semi-autonomous Hong Kong, which maintained aspects of British law after the 1997 handover, and the mainland's authoritarian Communist Party system. Critics say the law effectively ends the "one country, two systems" framework under which Hong Kong was promised a high degree of autonomy.
Vandalism may be prosecuted as subversion
The law directly targets some of the actions of anti-government protesters last year, which included attacks on government offices and police stations, damage to subway stations, and the shutdown of the city's international airport.
Acts of vandalism against government facilities or public transit can be prosecuted as subversion or terrorism, while anyone taking part in activities deemed as secessionist would also be in violation of the new law.
Hong Kong's police force had issued a statement saying it would consider as illegal any flag or banner raised by protesters deemed to be promoting Hong Kong's separation from China or expressing support for independence for Tibet, Xinjiang and the self-governing island democracy of Taiwan that China claims as its own.
Members of an honour guard march during the flag-raising ceremony at the Golden Bauhinia Square in Hong Kong on Wednesday to mark the anniversary of Hong Kong's handover to China. (Kin Cheung/The Associated Press)
Concerns have also been raised over the fate of key opposition figures, some of whom have already been charged for taking part in protests, as well as the disqualification of candidates for the Legislative Council elections scheduled for September.
Schools, social groups, media outlets, websites and unspecified others will be monitored and their national security awareness will be raised, according to the law's text, while China's central government will have authority over the activities of foreign non-governmental organizations and media outlets in Hong Kong.
It says central government bodies in Hong Kong will take over in "complicated cases" and when there is a serious threat to national security. Local authorities are barred from interfering with central government bodies operating in Hong Kong while they are carrying out their duties, according to the text.
Rubber-stamped by China
The legislation was mandated under Hong Kong's local constitution, but an earlier attempt to pass it in the city's legislative body in 2003 was shelved in the face of massive public opposition.
Having lost patience, Beijing finally decided to circumvent the Hong Kong legislature and have it passed Tuesday by the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress, China's rubber-stamp parliament.
President Xi Jinping signed a presidential order putting the law into effect and it has been added to the Basic Law, Hong Kong's constitution.
The U.S. has already begun moves to end special trade terms given to the city. The Trump administration has also said it will bar defence exports to Hong Kong and will soon require licences for the sale of items that have both civilian and military uses, citing the possibility of them falling into the hands of the People's Liberation Army, which owes its loyalty to China's ruling Communist Party.
Pelosi condemns law as House approves sanctions
The U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation by unanimous consent on Wednesday that would penalize banks doing business with Chinese officials who implement the security law.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called the law a "brutal, sweeping crackdown against the people of Hong Kong, intended to destroy the freedoms they were promised."
The U.S. Senate passed similar legislation last week, but under congressional rules the bill must return to the Senate and be passed there before being sent to the White House for President Donald Trump to sign into law or veto.
U.K. extending residence rights
Britain's foreign secretary announced Wednesday that residence rights for Hong Kongers eligible for British National Overseas (BNO) passports will be extended to five years. Dominic Raab told the House of Commons that the new rules will allow up to three million Hong Kongers the right to live and work in Britain without the current six-month limit. After five years in the U.K., BNO passport holders could apply for settled status and then apply for citizenship 12 months after that.
China has said it will impose visa restrictions on Americans it sees as interfering over Hong Kong.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo denounced the threat of a visa ban as a sign of "how Beijing refuses to take responsibility for its own choices," and said the law's adoption "destroys the territory's autonomy and one of China's greatest achievements."
Beijing's "paranoia and fear of its own people's aspirations have led it to eviscerate the very foundation of the territory's success," Pompeo said in a statement.