By The Washington Post · Eva Dou, Shibani Mahtani · WORLD, ASIA-PACIFIC
Overnight, Hong Kong's 7.5 million residents have been put under the same speech restrictions as the mainland, with possible life imprisonment for those deemed guilty of "subversion" - a standard charge used to jail political dissidents and human rights activists in China. Still, thousands braved arrest Wednesday to march in defiance as Beijing dismantles their freedoms.
Equally striking in China's move was the realpolitik logic underlying the new law: It signaled that China sees no need to abide by international agreements it made from a position of weakness in earlier years as a poorer nation. The law asserted extraterritorial jurisdiction over critics of Beijing anywhere in the world - potentially ensnaring such people should they set foot in Hong Kong.
In a speech last week, U.S. national security adviser Robert O'Brien called Washington's miscalculation of China's political trajectory the "greatest failure of American foreign policy since the 1930s." This week's passage of the Hong Kong security law is one of the clearest illustrations that Beijing is seeking to become a world power on its own terms instead of following the West's rule book.
"Of course we're not afraid," said Zhang Xiaoming, executive director of the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs office, at a Wednesday news conference, of Washington's sanctions in response to the law. "The era when the Chinese cared what others thought and looked up to others is in the past, never to return."
He called the law a "birthday present" for Hong Kong - it took effect exactly 23 years since China regained the territory from Britain - and said it would serve as a "guardian angel" that would restore the protest-wracked city's prosperity and stability.
Beijing, which under the 1984 Sino-British joint declaration had promised to preserve Hong Kong's political freedoms until 2047, has been intent on projecting an appearance of rule of law through the process. While the central government had threatened last year to deploy mainland troops into Hong Kong to crush the sometimes-violent pro-democracy protests, it ultimately held back, relying on municipal police to handle the crisis.
But now Beijing has codified broad new powers for itself in Hong Kong, which means that going forward, it can send in troops without local officials' request, extradite residents to the mainland and conduct surveillance on political opponents in the city while asserting it is following the letter of the law.
At the same Wednesday news conference, Shen Chunyao, director of the legislative affairs commission for the National People's Congress standing committee, stressed that Beijing adhered to correct procedures in passing the law, despite bypassing Hong Kong's legislature and skipping the public comment period due to the issue's "sensitivity."
"Our nation's legislative process was strictly followed," he said, adding that the central government sought feedback quietly from Hong Kong officials and business executives during the law's drafting.
China has made other geopolitical maneuvers in recent weeks, as other nations remain preoccupied with the coronavirus pandemic, and the U.S. with a painful reckoning with police violence and institutionalized racism. Twenty Indian troops were killed last month in border clashes with Chinese soldiers, the most serious conflict between the nuclear-armed neighbors in decades.
Beijing also said last month it will bring formal espionage charges against Canadians Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, a year and a half after they were detained in what was widely seen as retribution for the arrest of Huawei's chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou in Canada. Meng was detained by Canadian authorities at the request of the United States, which is seeking her extradition on fraud charges.
The Hong Kong security law carries undertones of the Huawei incident, setting up an extradition mechanism for people in Hong Kong - a high-traffic flight-transfer hub - to the mainland. Indeed, it was a government proposal last year to allow extraditions to the mainland that kicked off months of protests in Hong Kong and increasingly forceful clashes between police and demonstrators.
Shen said that "a very small number of cases where there is severe harm to national security" would be handled by central authorities instead of Hong Kong authorities. In those cases, Beijing's top judges would designate a court to handle the case - a pathway for extradition to the mainland if they select a mainland court.
Addressing reporters Wednesday, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam quoted Chinese leader Xi Jinping, arguing that her city had forgotten the principle of the "one country, two systems" framework - stressing the primacy of "one country."
"We have not done a good job in terms of educating our young people about our history, and our country," she said. "That has led to risk and danger."
She promised that her government would do its "very best" in upholding the law, and said the law showed the ruling Communist Party's trust in her administration. Hong Kong's secretary for security, speaking at the same news conference, added that the city's police would be primarily responsible for implementing the law.
As they spoke, tens of thousands descended on the Causeway Bay district to protest the crackdown. The area is always boisterous on July 1, the handover anniversary, and usually features peaceful marches and political booths lining the streets.
This time, even before crowds could fully gather, police officers were stationed on almost every corner. Police hoisted a new purple flag - warning that those amassing faced arrest for displaying "flags or banners/chanting slogans" that could violate the new security law - before moving to clear the crowd.
Officers fired a water cannon, and blocked roads and subway exits. Police also used pepper spray against protesters and several reporters.
Still, protesters at times managed to regroup and march through neighboring districts, shouting "Hong Kong independence, the only way out" and other chants that now risk heavy jail sentences.
By 2 p.m., Hong Kong police announced they had made their first of two arrests under the new security law. A man was found with a flag that said "Hong Kong independence" in large lettering. (The flag had two tiny Chinese characters, which could be read to add "no to" before "Hong Kong independence.")
Police said calls for independence - a once-fringe idea that has gained traction among protesters - could amount to inciting others to commit succession, an act punishable under the new security law.
By late afternoon, police had arrested about 70 people for offenses including violating the new law, illegal assembly, and possessing offensive weapons.
"There are some saying that they will continue their fight, but it does not matter," Lam added in the news conference. "Because we have the law now, and we will strongly enforce it."