HONG KONG (Reuters) – A Hong Kong man who carried a sign saying “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times” as he drove a motorcycle into police during a protest this week has become the first person charged with inciting separatism and terrorism under a new security law.
Beijing imposed the national security law on Hong Kong late on Tuesday after weeks of uncertainty, pushing China’s freest city and one of the world’s most glittering financial hubs on to a more authoritarian path.
The law punishes crimes of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces with up to life in prison but critics say it is aimed at stamping out dissent and ending a long-running campaign for greater democracy in the city.
Police said the 23-year-old man charged under the law rammed into several officers at the unauthorised protest on Wednesday injuring some. He was initially arrested for dangerous driving, media said.
A video circulating online showed the driver knocking over several officers with his motorbike on a narrow street, before falling off and getting arrested.
The charge against him, as shown in a court document on Friday, comes less than 24 hours after the city’s government said the protest slogan “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times” connotes separatism or subversion under the new law.
The rallying cry appears on placards at most rallies, is printed on T-shirts and accessories and scribbled on post-it notes on walls across the Chinese-ruled city.
The government’s ruling on the slogan will compound fears about the suppression of the global finance hub’s freedoms.
China’s parliament adopted the security law in response to protests last year triggered by fears that Beijing was stifling the freedoms, guaranteed by a “one country, two systems” formula agreed when the former British colony returned to Chinese rule in 1997. Beijing denies the accusation.
Authorities in Beijing and Hong Kong have repeatedly said the legislation is aimed at a few “troublemakers” and will not affect the rights and freedoms that underpin the city’s role as a financial hub.
But the United States, Britain and others have denounced the new legislation and the United Nations said it feared it would restrict space for civil society and lead to the prosecution of activists.
Dozens of people gathered to protest outside another court where a man was charged with “wounding with intent” for stabbing a policeman in the arm with a sharp object during the Wednesday disturbances.
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They held up blank pieces of paper to highlight what they fear will be the new law’s impact on free speech.
“I’m not scared. Come what may,” said one of the protesters, 25-year-old Wilson. He did not give his last name.
On Wednesday, the 23rd anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to Chinese rule, police said they arrested about 370 people during the protests, with 10 of those involving violations of the new law.
In what is sure to be seen as another ominous sign for Hong Kong’s freedoms, China’s official Xinhua news agency said a Communist Party cadre who became prominent during a 2011 clampdown on protesters in a south China village will head a national security office in Hong Kong to be set up under the new law.
Zheng Yanxiong, 57, most recently served as the secretary general of the Communist Party committee of Guangdong province, an economic powerhouse bordering Hong Kong.
He was seen calling the foreign media “rotten” in a leaked video of a government meeting at the time.
Under the new legislation, the agency can take enforcement action beyond existing laws in the most serious cases.
It also allows agents to take suspects across the border for trials in Communist Party-controlled courts and specifies special privileges for the agents, including that Hong Kong authorities cannot inspect their vehicles.
Some prominent activists have been keeping a low profile or leaving.
Demosisto, a pro-democracy group led by Hong Kong activist Joshua Wong, disbanded hours after the legislation was passed, while prominent group member Nathan Law left the city.
“The protests in Hong Kong have been a window for the world to recognise that China is getting more and more authoritarian,” Law told Reuters in an online interview.
While the government said late on Thursday the slogan “Liberate Hong Kong, the revolution of our times” now indicated independence or separation of the city from China, altering its legal status or subversion, it was not unclear if independent courts would uphold that view.
Some are taking no chances.
Public broadcaster RTHK reproduced the slogan as “L*******#HongKong” in a comment on Twitter, to the scorn of some other social media users.
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