Hong Kong woke up to a new reality on Wednesday, after China began enforcing a sweeping security law that could reshape the financial hub’s character 23 years after it took control of the former British colony.
The law’s tough provisions went beyond what many investors, democracy advocates and even pro-Beijing politicians feared, prompting warnings that it would cast a chilling effect over free speech and political activities related to Hong Kong. Leaders in Beijing and Hong Kong did nothing to allay those worries during briefings to explain the 35-page law unveiled as it came into effect late Tuesday, even as thousands hit the streets in defiance.
“The law is a ‘sword of Damocles‘ hanging above extremely few criminals who are severely endangering national security,” Zhang Xiaoming, the deputy director of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, told reporters Wednesday in Beijing. “The law will deter foreign forces who try to interfere with Hong Kong affairs. The law is a turning point to put Hong Kong back on its track.”
The law’s vague language generated confusion about what activities were allowed, adding uncertainty for some businesses that flocked to Hong Kong in part because of its independent British-inspired legal system. While some investors said the measure would bring stability following sometimes-violent protests last year, others expected to see a flight of capital and talent to places that uphold the rule of law. Markets were closed for a public holiday.
The Trump administration vowed additional “strong actions” if Beijing didn’t reverse course, potentially inflicting more damage on a city facing its deepest recession on record with unemployment at a 15-year high. The U.K. accused Beijing of going back on its promise in a 1984 treaty to preserve Hong Kong’s “high degree of autonomy.”
“The feeling is that, all of a sudden, the ‘one country, two systems’ arrangement has disappeared and Hong Kong is truly just another part of China,” said Charles Mok, a member of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council who represents the information technology industry. “It’s ironic that passing this national security law may make the international community feel that Hong Kong is less secure.”
Police on Wednesday quickly boasted of their first seven arrests under the law—including a protester with a Hong Kong independence flag—out of 180 people taken into custody. They used tear gas, water cannons and pepper spray balls to quell protests that erupted downtown, where demonstrators carrying umbrellas and American flags clashed with officers.
Prominent activists, including former student leader Joshua Wong, joined the protests even while cutting ties with political groups Tuesday in an apparent attempt to avoid implicating each other. Pro-democracy lawmakers have expressed concern the law will be used to bar them from seeking office in a legislative election in September.
“We don’t know if there will be any more opportunities for us to go on the streets for the same cause,” said a 31-year-old freelancer who gave his name as …read more