Police unfurled a new flag Wednesday during a protest in Causeway Bay informing demonstrators it is now illegal to chant and carry signs calling for Hong Kong's independence. Photo courtesy of Hong Kong Police Department/Facebook
July 1 (UPI) -- Police in Hong Kong said Wednesday they have made their first arrests under a controversial new national security law as hundreds of protesters took to the streets in defiance.
Police said via Twitter officers arrested a man for holding a black flag at Causeway Bay calling for the city's independence from China, making him the first person to be arrested under the new national security law that has received widespread condemnation as a threat to the embattled region's autonomy and the rights of its citizens.
"This is the first arrest made since the law has come into force," the statement said.
A second person was later arrested in suspicion of breaking the new law by holding a handwritten sign that said "Hong Kong Independence."
The new national security law went into effect at 11 p.m. Tuesday, criminalizing acts of secession, sedition, subversion, terrorism and working with foreign agencies to undermine the national security of the People's Republic of China in Hong Kong.
Punishment for those convicted range from less than three years for smaller offenses to life imprisonment.
In a second tweet some 20 minutes later, the Hong Kong Police Force published a photo of officers holding up a purple flag warning protesters chanting Hong Kong independence slogans and waving flags at the retail-dense area that they were violating the new law and could be arrested.
"You are displaying flags, chanting slogans or conducting yourself with an intent such as secession or subversion, which may constitution offenses under the [Hong Kong Special Administrative Region] National Security Law," the police flag read. "You may be arrested and prosecuted."
By Wednesday afternoon, more than 70 people protesting at Causeway Bay had been arrested, two of whom under the new law, police said, adding that people had blocked roads and spilled nails drilled into plastic tubes to puncture the tires of cars on the roads.
"The police will continue to maintain high alert and will take firm enforcement in case of the law," the statement said.
The arrests were announced as Carrie Lam, Hong Kong's chief executive, argued that the new law, which has received widespread international condemnation for evaporating Hong Kong's autonomy from China, was proof of Beijing's commitment to the "One Country, Two Systems" governmental framework it had functioned under.
Hong Kong has operated under this system since it returned to China from Britain in 1997 with a U.N.-filed declaration that promised the city 50 years of autonomy. However, critics argue the new law all but scraps that governmental framework.
Lam told reporters during a press conference critics who say the new law undermines the "One Country, Two Systems" structure are wrong as it will actually strengthen it.
"The central people's government likes to improve upon the One Country, Two Systems through the national security law so that the stability and prosperity we've enjoyed the past 23 years can continue," she said.
However, for this unique and unprecedented government framework to flourish, the foundation of China must first be solidified, she said.
"One country is the root, one country is the foundation, so we have to get the foundation and the root right before we can get the two systems to work," she said.
In the 23 years since Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule, it hasn't lived up to its responsibilities under its mini-constitution to uphold national security, she said, adding that it has also "not done a proper job" in educating youth about Chinese culture and history, nor has it worked to strengthen its relationship with China.
These issues may have contributed to the "turbulences" that began in Hong Kong last June, she said referring to the yearlong pro-democracy protests that erupted and threatened the stability of the region.
"And since June, the central people's government has witnessed the turbulences and rises in Hong Kong and decided it was time they take action," she said.
The law, she said, shows the central authorities' determination to end "the chaos and riots of the past year," to protect citizens from those who cause harm and to improve One Country, Two Systems.
"The central authorities are determined the majority of the citizens here will enjoy the rights and freedoms they unduly enjoy," she said.
However, many countries, including the United States, warned China that there will be consequences for implementing the law.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said late Tuesday that the United States "will not stand idly by while China swallows Hong Kong into its authoritarian maw," and has moved to revoke policies that permitted the region special trade status as well as imposed visa restrictions on Chinese officials they accuse as being responsible for eroding its autonomy.
Britain has also said that if the law was imposed, it would overhaul its visa system that would create a pathway to citizenship for some 3 million of Hong Kong's 7.4 million residents.