By Jerome Taylor

Hong Kong marked the 23rd anniversary of its handover to China on Wednesday under the glare of a new national security law imposed by Beijing, with protests banned and the city’s cherished freedoms looking increasingly fragile.

The anniversary comes a day after China passed a sweeping security law for the city, a historic move decried by many Western governments as an unprecedented assault on the finance hub’s liberties and autonomy.

Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam (2nd L) makes a toast following a flag-raising ceremony to mark China’s National Day celebrations early morning in Hong Kong on July 1, 2020. Photo: Anthony Wallace/AFP.

Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam, a pro-Beijing appointee, attended a traditional flag-raising ceremony in the morning in a square where a giant billboard hailing the new law had been erected.

Helicopters flew past carrying a giant Chinese flag and a smaller Hong Kong flag as the “March of the Volunteers” national anthem was played.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s speech in full – click to view

Distinguished guests, fellow citizens,

     Today marks the 23rd anniversary of the establishment of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). It is a day of great historical significance and it gives me much pleasure to celebrate the occasion with you together.

     First of all, the national anthem of the PRC that we played and sang at the flag-raising ceremony this morning and at the beginning of this reception is protected by the National Anthem Ordinance of the HKSAR. Like the national flag and the national emblem, the national anthem is the symbol and sign of the nation. As an inalienable part of our country, the HKSAR is duty-bound to preserve the dignity of the national anthem through legislation. The HKSAR Government introduced the National Anthem Bill into the Legislative Council (LegCo) in January 2019. After 18 months of deliberation, the Bill was eventually passed by the LegCo on June 4 this year. It came into effect upon publication in the Gazette on June 12.

     The National Anthem Ordinance provides for the playing and singing, protection and promotion of the national anthem to preserve the dignity of the country, enhance the sense of national identity among citizens and promote patriotism. The offences stipulated in the Ordinance only concern the misuse of the national anthem, or public and intentional acts with an intent to insult the national anthem.

     While it is important for us to respect and protect the national anthem, safeguarding national security is of even greater importance as this concerns the unity, territorial integrity and development interests of our country and is closely related to the livelihood of our people. Yesterday, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress passed the Law on Safeguarding National Security in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China (the National Security Law in Hong Kong). The national law was added to Annex III to the Basic Law and started to be applied in Hong Kong by way of promulgation by the HKSAR Government on the same day.

     The enactment of the national law is regarded as the most significant development in the relationship between the Central Authorities and the HKSAR since Hong Kong’s return to the Motherland. It is a historical step to improve the system for Hong Kong to safeguard our country’s sovereignty, territorial integrity and security. It is also an essential and timely decision for restoring stability in Hong Kong.  The significance of this decision is multifaceted. It shows that the Central Government is determined to restore stability in Hong Kong, after a year of escalating violence and riots since last June.  It shows that the Central Government is determined to protect the vast majority of law-abiding citizens in Hong Kong from the minority who attempted to undermine national security.  It also shows that the Central Government is determined to preserve and better “One Country, Two Systems”, a principle underlying Hong Kong’s stability and prosperity since the HKSAR was established 23 years ago.

     Over the past month or so, in the face of all sorts of smearing and malicious attacks by foreign and local bodies and individuals against the enactment of the National Security Law in Hong Kong at the state level, government officials and legal experts in the Mainland, my governing team and I, local business and political leaders as well as various sectors in the community have explained from various perspectives that it is constitutional, lawful, reasonable and rational for the Central Government to introduce the National Security Law in Hong Kong. The Law will neither undermine the high degree of autonomy, the judicial independence and the rule of law in Hong Kong, nor will it affect the legitimate rights and interests of Hong Kong people. It targets an extremely small minority of people who commit four types of crimes that seriously threaten national security as provided in the Law, namely secession, subversion of state power, organisation and carrying out of terrorist activities, and collusion with foreign or external forces to endanger national security. It serves to protect the life and property, basic rights and freedoms of the overwhelming majority of our citizens. I would like to take this opportunity to extend my sincere gratitude to all those who have spoken openly for the National Security Law in Hong Kong and the some three million people who have signed in support of the Law online and on the street. 

     The enactment of the National Security Law in Hong Kong is a turning point to take Hong Kong out of the current impasse and to restore stability and order from the chaos. The HKSAR Government will do its utmost and remain steadfast in its duties to fulfil the primary responsibility of implementing the National Security Law in Hong Kong. I will soon set up a committee on safeguarding national security in the HKSAR which will fully collaborate with the Central Government’s office for safeguarding national security in Hong Kong to ensure that the legislative objectives of the National Security Law in Hong Kong are achieved and that the mechanism for safeguarding national security will be established and improved to guarantee the continued success of “One Country, Two Systems” in Hong Kong and the long-term prosperity and stability of our city.

     The implementation of the National Anthem Ordinance and the National Security Law in Hong Kong signifies the fulfilment of the constitutional responsibility of the HKSAR to better the institution of “One Country, Two Systems” and to bring the relationship between “One Country” and “Two Systems” back on the right track.  However, to ensure that members of the public respect the national anthem of their own volition and safeguard national security wholeheartedly, public promotion and school education are of utmost importance.  The relevant departments of the HKSAR Government will collaborate with different sectors of society and provide them with the necessary resources in order to carry out the related work properly.

     As I said at my Inaugural Ceremony three years ago, “hope propels a society forward, and confidence is the foundation of hope.” The past year has been the toughest challenge in my forty years of public service. Not only have I faced unprecedented personal attacks, but I was also worried about the future of Hong Kong. I am extremely grateful to the Central Government for its trust in me, to my family and close friends for their unreserved love and to colleagues at all levels for their staunch support.  Their care and concern has given me strength amidst difficult times and faith that better days will prevail. Similarly, after one whole year of social and political unrest, we should be confident that Hong Kong will emerge stronger after stability is restored.  

     In the coming two years, leading the HKSAR Government out of the current political predicament, overcoming the post-epidemic challenges, reviving the economy, restoring Hong Kong’s international reputation, rebuilding the relationship between the Government and our young people, and re-establishing social order are no easy tasks.  However, as long as we all make Hong Kong our home, and are willing to put aside our differences and move on, I believe that there are always more solutions than problems and that Hong Kong can definitely build a better future. 

     May all of you have a happy festive day!

Activists have called on people to defy a ban on protests and march through the city’s main island on Wednesday afternoon.

But it is unclear whether residents will heed that call given the risks posed by the new security law — which came into effect overnight — and increasingly aggressive police tactics towards even peaceful gatherings in recent months.

Gatherings of more than 50 people are already banned under anti-coronavirus laws, even though local transmissions have ended. 

As the flag-raising ceremony was under way, around 10 veteran pro-democracy campaigners held a protest nearby chanting “End one-party rule” and “Withdraw national security”. 

They were searched by police and followed by officers throughout. 

Polarising anniversary

The July 1 anniversary has long been a polarising day in the semi-autonomous city.

Beijing loyalists celebrate Hong Kong’s return to the Chinese motherland after a century and a half of what many considered humiliating colonial rule by Britain.

But democracy advocates have used the date to hold large protests as popular anger towards Beijing’s rule swells.

Photo: GovHK.

During last year’s huge pro-democracy demonstrations, the city’s legislature was besieged and trashed by protesters.

For the first time since the ceremony began 17 years ago, authorities have banned the annual July 1 democracy march, citing fears of unrest and the coronavirus.

Ahead of the 1997 handover by Britain, authoritarian China guaranteed Hong Kong civil liberties — as well as judicial and legislative autonomy — for 50 years in a deal known as “One Country, Two Systems.”

The formula helped cement the city’s status as a world-class business hub, bolstered by an independent judiciary and political freedoms unseen on the mainland. 

Protester overs the HKSAR emblem with the British colonial flag at the Legislative Council Chamber on July 1, 2019. Photo: May James.

Chinese jurisdiction and life sentences

Critics have long accused Beijing of chipping away at that status, but they describe the security law as the most brazen move yet.

Passage of the legislation was speedy and opaque even by Beijing’s standards.

The law was passed in just six weeks, skipping Hong Kong’s fractious legislature, and the precise wording was kept secret from the city’s 7.5 million inhabitants until it came into effect on Tuesday evening.

It outlaws subversion, secession, terrorism and colluding with foreign forces to undermine national security with sentences up to life in prison.

The new suite of powers radically restructures the relationship between Beijing and Hong Kong, toppling the legal firewall that has existed between the city’s judiciary and the mainland’s party-controlled courts.

Members of a pro-Beijing group gather at Tamar Park on June 30, 2020 to celebrate the enactment of the national security law. Photo: Inmediahk.net, via CC 2.0.

China will have jurisdiction over “serious” cases and its security agencies will also be able to operate publicly in the city for the first time, unbound by local laws as they carry out their duties. 

Twenty-seven countries, including Britain, France, Germany and Japan, urged Beijing to “reconsider the imposition” of the legislation, saying in a statement to the UN Human Rights Council that it “undermines” the city’s freedoms.

Washington — which has embarked on a trade war with China — has said the security law means Hong Kong no longer enjoys sufficient autonomy from the mainland to justify special status. 

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned of new countermeasures after the security law’s passing.

Mike Pompeo. Photo: US Department of State, via Flickr.

Beijing says the law will restore stability after a year of pro-democracy protests and will not end Hong Kong’s freedoms. 

Critics have little faith in those assurances given how similar national security laws are routinely used on the authoritarian mainland to crush dissent.

The law is a response to huge and often violent pro-democracy protests last year.

Millions took to the streets while a smaller hard core of protesters frequently battled police in vicious confrontations that saw more than 9,000 arrested.

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