HONG KONG (Reuters) -Police deployed in the streets of Hong Kong in large numbers on Thursday to prevent protests on the anniversary of its return to Chinese rule as its acting leader said last year’s national security law had restored order after a period of chaos.
Police vans, water cannon trucks, armoured vehicles and police units patrolled the streets. Passers-by were stopped and searched, with at least 20 people arrested.
One man died after stabbing a police officer with a knife. Police and hospital spokespersons were unable to give details on how he died.
The policeman was taken to hospital with a serious injury, police said. The assailant’s motive was not immediately clear.
Around a dozen people were also arrested for allegedly distributing “seditious” leaflets.
Parts of Victoria Park on Hong Kong Island – where an annual civil society and pro-democracy march normally begins – were shut down to prevent processions or meetings, and all other public assemblies were banned by police, citing COVID-19 restrictions.
Hong Kong’s acting leader John Lee said in a speech the authorities would continue to take a “steady stance” to protect national security, and that the city had returned to order after a period of chaos.
“Hong Kong absolutely has the conditions to rebound,” he said.
Beijing imposed the security law on June 30 last year to punish anything China deems as subversion, secession, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces with up to life in prison.
The law was Beijing’s first major step to put the global financial hub onto an authoritarian path, kick-starting a campaign dubbed “patriots rule Hong Kong,” which included moves to reduce democratic representation in the city’s legislature and various screening mechanisms for politicians.
Lee was speaking at a flag-raising ceremony marking the 24th anniversary of the former British colony’s return to Chinese rule in 1997, which coincides with the centenary of the Chinese Communist Party.
Chief Executive Carrie Lam and other senior officials were invited to Beijing for the party celebrations. Lee was appointed as her No. 2 last week after playing a key role in the crackdown over the past year as security secretary.
Critics of the government say it has used the security law to crush dissent. Officials in Beijing and Hong Kong say it has plugged national security “loopholes” exposed by anti-government demonstrations in 2019.
So far under the law, authorities have arrested 117 people, mostly democratic politicians, activists, journalists and students.
“On the day of July 1, I am nothing more than one of tens of thousands of Hong Kongers who want their voices heard,” tweeted pro-democracy campaigner and barrister Chow Hang-tung, who was rearrested on the eve of the sensitive anniversary.
“They want to kill the monkey to scare the chicken, then we must let them know Hong Kongers won’t give up.”
Beijing said the law was necessary after mass pro-democracy and anti-China protests in 2019 that it described as endangering national security. Many protesters, however, say they were demanding Beijing respect constitutionally guaranteed rights and freedoms.
Usually on July 1, tens of thousands of people take to the streets in Hong Kong to protest against anything from Beijing’s manoeuvres in the city to unaffordable housing.
“It is crystal clear that under the NSL (national security law), over a year, it does have a chilling effect on Hong Kong people … less people would have the confidence to go on the street to speak out,” said Raphael Wong, an activist with the League of Social Democrats.
The group held a protest with three others in the morning that was hemmed in by dozens of police. They held up a yellow banner calling on authorities to “Free all political prisoners”.
In an online discussion on the law that included officials from the United States, Britain, Japan, the European Union and the United Nations, there were calls for China to allow independent observers to come to Hong Kong to assess the situation on the ground, with a view to seek ways for China to improve the law.
“We want to come,” said Clement Voule, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly.
(Reporting by Sara Cheng, James Pomfret, Jessie Pang and Anne Marie Roantree in HONG KONG; Editing by Stephen Coates, Shri Navaratnam, Angus MacSwan and Giles Elgood)