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. They 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 in Hong Kong after the territory 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 the bloody 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in Beijing's Tiananmen Square, and the July 1 handover protest, citing pandemic social distancing restrictions.
Police have 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.
Lee was speaking at a reception commemorating the 24th anniversary of the former British colony's return to China. It coincides with the centenary of the Chinese Communist Party on the mainland, where Hong Kong's top leader Carrie Lam has been attending.
Lee said Hong Kong was on the rebound as the national security law 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.
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.
On Thursday morning, amid a heavy police presence, a group of 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 that called for the release of political prisoners. (AP)