A woman reacts after she was hit with pepper spray deployed by police in Hong Kong on July 1, 2020

Mail Online: UK, July 2, 2020 – Shields raised and brandishing guns, a phalanx of riot police advance on protesters in Hong Kong yesterday as China’s crackdown on dissent began.

Hundreds of pro-democracy activists were rounded up in the first wave of arrests related to a draconian new security law.

They included a 15-year-old girl who was waving a flag calling for independence for the former British territory. Police used water cannons, tear gas and pepper spray to drive protesters back.

Beijing unveiled the details of the law on Tuesday night after weeks of uncertainty, pushing one of the world’s most glittering financial hubs on to a more authoritarian path.

It came on the eve of the 23rd anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover to China and reverses promises made to respect its citizens’ freedoms. Protesters initially found themselves outnumbered by riot police, with groups of officers stationed at every major junction. Then thousands arrived to defy tear gas and pepper pellets sprayed their way.

Police said ten were arrested specifically under the new security law. The first was a man with a flag that read simply: ‘Hong Kong Independence.’ A woman holding a sign displaying the Union Flag was also held while others were detained for “possessing items advocating independence”.

Around 370 were arrested on other charges, including unlawful assembly and possessing weapons.

The new law is seen as Beijing’s boldest step yet to bring the semi-autonomous territory under control of the authoritarian mainland.Brought in following anti-government protests last year, it outlaws any action deemed to be against the national interest of China.

Riot police officers walk as anti-national security law protesters march July 1, 2020

Anyone shouting slogans or holding flags calling for independence is violating the law, regardless of whether violence is used. Even driving a bus full of protesters could be deemed illegal.

The most serious offenders will be labelled ‘terrorists’, transferred to the mainland and receive a maximum sentence of life in jail.

Some trials will be held behind closed doors. A new police unit unaccountable to local laws has also been given licence to operate in the territory. Beijing, not Hong Kong, will have power over how the law is interpreted.

Ahead of the protest, pro-democracy activist Tsang Kin-shing, of the League of Social Democrats, warned there was a ‘large chance of our being arrested’.

He said: “The charges will not be light, please judge for yourself.”

A man who gave his name as Seth, 35, said: “I’m scared of going to jail but for justice I have to come out today, I have to stand up.’ Media tycoon Jimmy Lai said the law meant Hong Kong was ‘dead’. He added: ‘It’s worse than the worst scenario imagined. Hong Kong is totally subdued, totally under control.”

Mr Lai, 72, who also supported the Tiananmen Square protesters in 1989, thinks Beijing will come for him but is unfazed. “I cannot worry, because you never know what kind of measures they will take against me,” he said.

Protesters chant slogans during a rally against a new national security law in Hong Kong on July 1, 2020

Amnesty International said the new law was a “far-reaching threat to Hong Kong’s freedoms”. Its Asia-Pacific regional director, Nicholas Bequelin, added: “With its vague language and provisions for secret trials, hand-picked judges and mainland security agencies operating freely in the city, the law is wide open to politically motivated, capricious and arbitrary interpretation by the authorities.

The UK updated its travel advice on Hong Kong, saying there is an “increased risk of detention and deportation”. It advised Britons to “avoid protests and demonstrations”.

Political leaders across the spectrum have condemned China’s crackdown, which came quicker than anyone expected.

But Rod Wye, of the Chatham House think-tank, said Beijing will not care as it takes advantage of global instability and rifts opening up between Western powers.

“The USA and EU are moving in different directions in many areas. It is perhaps to China’s advantage that that should be so,” he said.

“Expressions of concern are certainly not going to change the Chinese intention one little bit.”

Britain yesterday offered up to three million Hong Kong residents the chance to settle in the UK and ultimately apply for citizenship in response to China’s crackdown.

A police officer raises his pepper spray handgun as he detains a man during a march against the national security law

Boris Johnson accused Beijing of a ‘clear and serious breach’ of the deal struck when the former British territory was handed over in 1997.

Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab announced a new route for those with British national (overseas) status, and their dependants, to access visas letting them live and work in the UK before eventually applying for citizenship.

As of February, there were nearly 350,000 BNO passport holders. The Government estimates there are around 2.9million BNOs living in Hong Kong.

Mr Raab accused Beijing of the ‘strangulation’ of Hong Kong’s freedoms. The 1997 handover deal came with a promise of 50 years of autonomy which has allowed the city to thrive.

“China, through this national security legislation, is not living up to its promises to the people of Hong Kong. We will live up to our promises to them,” Mr Raab said.

He told MPs that BNOs would be granted five years’ limited leave to remain in the UK with the ability to work. They would then be eligible to apply for settled status and would be able to apply for citizenship after 12 months. Mr Raab said there would be no quotas on numbers.

Beijing’s security law, which took effect on Tuesday night, makes activities deemed against the national interest of China punishable by life in jail.

Mr Johnson told MPs: “The enactment and imposition of this national security law constitutes a clear and serious breach of the Sino-British Joint Declaration. It violates Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy and is in direct conflict with Hong Kong basic law.

“We made clear that if China continues down this path we would introduce a new route for those with British national overseas status to enter the UK, granting them limited leave to remain, with the ability to live and work in the UK and thereafter to apply for citizenship – and that is precisely what we will do.”

The new immigration rules will be implemented “in the coming months”, the Foreign Office said. Until then, the Government said BNOs would be able to come to the UK, subject to standard immigration checks.