Hong Kong bans handover protest as official defends law

HONG KONG (AP) — Marking the anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to Chinese control, a top city official defended the national security law imposed by Beijing to crush pro-democracy rallies and said Thursday it would be used further in the coming year to ensure stability.

Police sealed off Victoria Park — until recently the site of annual pro-democracy rallies marking the 1997 handover — and put up flags warning people that they could be prosecuted if they enter or remain in the enclosed area. Police said there were online calls encouraging people to take part in an unauthorized protest.

The security law was implemented one year ago as authorities cracked down on dissent after Hong Kong was rocked by massive anti-government protests in 2019. Critics say Beijing has reneged on a promise to keep the special privileges for Hong Kong for 50 years — the autonomy of its courts and legal system, civil liberties that include a free press, freedom of speech and the leeway to take to the streets to protest.

Hong Kong Chief Secretary John Lee said the national security law stipulates that human rights are respected and allows residents to enjoy freedom of the press and free assembly.

However, large-scale demonstrations have been banned and a number of pro-democracy activists and journalists have been arrested, ceased public activities or have left Hong Kong.

For two years in a row, authorities banned an annual June 4 candlelight vigil commemorating China’s bloody 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, and the July 1 handover protest, citing pandemic social distancing restrictions.

On Wednesday, Chow Hang-tung, a key organizer of the June 4 vigil, was rearrested on suspicion of inciting others to participate in an unauthorized assembly.

Lee was speaking at a reception commemorating the 24th anniversary of the former British colony’s return to China. It coincided with the centenary of the Chinese Communist Party on the mainland, which Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam attended.

Lee said Hong Kong was on the rebound as the national security law has restored social and political stability.

“Our team has more confidence than ever in Hong Kong’s prospect. In the coming year, we will continue to uphold national security with determination and improve the implementation of the ‘one country, two systems principle,’” he said, referring to the framework under which Hong Kong has its own government and enjoys freedoms not found on the mainland.

In Beijing, Chinese President Xi Jinping said in a keynote address during a celebration of the party centenary that China will uphold the “one country, two systems” framework in Hong Kong and Macao to ensure full sovereignty, social stability and maintain prosperity in the two regions.

There was a heavy police presence in the popular Causeway Bay shopping district, with officers stopping and searching some people. They took away pro-democracy activist Alexandra Wong, commonly known as Grandma Wong, who had been waving a British flag.

Police said in a Facebook post that at least 19 people were arrested on suspicion of possessing imitation firearms and offensive weapons, desecrating the national flag, distributing seditious publications, disorderly conduct and obstructing a police officer.

An officer was also stabbed in the back by a man with a knife on Thursday night, police said. He was sent to a hospital for treatment. The suspect later fatally stabbed himself, the South China Morning Post newspaper reported.

Last month, police arrested seven journalists and executives of the now-defunct Apple Daily, a pro-democracy newspaper that was a vocal critic of Hong Kong and China’s governments. Authorities also froze $2.3 million in assets linked to Apple Daily, forcing it to cease operations last week.

Western governments have criticized the arrests of journalists and Beijing’s tightening grip on the territory.

During a webinar discussing the national security law’s impact on Hong Kong on Thursday, British diplomat Simon Manley said the U.K. “now considers China to be in a state of ongoing non-compliance” with the Sino-British Joint Declaration under which the territory was handed over to China.

“There is a stark and growing gulf between Beijing’s promises, and its actions. The U.K. will continue to defend the rights and freedoms of the people of Hong Kong,” Manley said in prerecorded remarks.

Jiang Yingfeng, minister-counsellor for China’s permanent mission to the U.N., said at the same webinar that China’s Communist Party and government are “serving the people wholeheartedly and contributing to the peace and development of the world.”

“Any attempt by the foreign forces to use Hong Kong-related issues to interfere in China’s internal affairs, to jeopardize China’s security and development and to harm the rights of Chinese people will surely fail,” Jiang said.

On Thursday morning, amid a heavy police presence, four activists including Raphael Wong, the head of the League of Social Democrats political party, marched through the streets of Wan Chai carrying a banner calling for the release of political prisoners.

As authorities claim that social stability has returned to Hong Kong, some residents opt to leave the city. Holders of the British National Overseas passport, which was issued to residents before the 1997 handover, are now eligible to move to the U.K. on special visas.

In recent days, long lines of people have thronged the check-in counters of airlines flying to the U.K.

Among them was Serena Leung, who booked a flight to Britain on Wednesday with her two daughters aged 5 and 7.

“I think that the U.K.’s human rights situation, freedom and education are better than Hong Kong,” she said. “Although the U.K. is not a perfect country, we still have confidence that it will stay well over the next 10, 20 years. But I don’t have any confidence in Hong Kong, it will only get worse and worse.”

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Associated Press news assistants Matthew Cheng and Janice Lo in Hong Kong and Jan M. Olsen in Copenhagen, Denmark, contributed to this report.

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