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LATEST: 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. Markets were closed for a public holiday.
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 leaders 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 Law. “Maybe we won’t be able to protest ever again for the rest of our lives.”
The legislation passed by lawmakers in China and signed by President Xi Jinping allows for potential life sentences for crimes including subversion of state power and collusion with foreign forces. It extends to actions committed by anyone, whether or not they are Hong Kong residents, anywhere in the world and appears to cover even non-violent tactics employed by protesters in a wave of unrest that gripped the former British colony last year.
For instance, Zhang said that those who travel overseas to seek sanctions against China could be prosecuted under the collusion provision. He also said people who spread “malicious rumors,” such as allegations that riot police killed passengers during a controversial sweep of train station in August, could be liable under provisions against “provoking hatred” against the government.
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Hong Kong, officially the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China (HKSAR), is a metropolitan area and special administrative region of the People’s Republic of China on the eastern Pearl River Delta of the South China Sea. With over 7.5 million residents of various nationalities in a 1,104-square-kilometre (426 sq mi) territory, Hong Kong is one of the most densely populated places in the world.
Hong Kong became a colony of the British Empire after the Qing Empire ceded Hong Kong Island at the end of the First Opium War in 1842. The colony expanded to the Kowloon Peninsula in 1860 after the Second Opium War and was further extended when Britain obtained a 99-year lease of the New Territories in 1898. The whole territory was transferred to China in 1997. As a special administrative region, Hong Kong maintains separate governing and economic systems from that of mainland China under the principle of “one country, two systems”.