A protester is detained after police used pepper spray on a demonstration in Hong Kong a day after the national security law was introduced © AP

Hong Kong police have made their first arrests under a sweeping new national security law imposed on the Asian financial hub by Beijing that has drawn international condemnation.

A day after Chinese president Xi Jinping signed the legislation into law in Beijing, Hong Kong police on Wednesday cracked down on thousands of protesters who defied Beijing to hold an annual march to mark the anniversary of the territory’s handover from the UK to China in 1997.

Riot police pepper-sprayed and detained protesters in a busy shopping district after officers displayed a banner warning them that they might be committing a secession or subversion-related crime by joining the demonstration.

Police tweeted a picture of a man arrested for carrying a Hong Kong independence flag — an illegal item under the new law, which punishes activities such as campaigning for secession with up to life imprisonment.

“This is the first arrest since the law came into force,” police said, adding that they had detained more than 300 people for alleged offences including violating the national security law, illegal assembly, obstructing police and possession of offensive weapons.

Police said one officer was stabbed in the arm while making an arrest. Protesters also blocked roads and violated coronavirus limits in Hong Kong on large gatherings.

Police display a banner giving a warning to protesters in the Causeway Bay shopping district of Hong Kong on Wednesday 
Police display a banner showing a warning to protesters in the Causeway Bay shopping district of Hong Kong on Wednesday  © Vincent Yu/AP

The US, Europe and Australia have condemned the legislation, which critics said undermined the high degree of autonomy and rule of law promised to Hong Kong on its handover 23 years ago.

Terrorism, subversion and collusion with foreign elements will also attract penalties of up to life imprisonment under the new law.

One Hong Kong protester, Hannah, an 18-year-old secondary school student, said the national security law had “made Hong Kong like China”.

“We have more fear compared to before . . . but we have to show the world we’re still resisting,” she said, standing in front of a fire protesters had lit in the middle of the road.

Other protesters gathered in impromptu groups away from the police, where they raised flags with “independence” written on them.

In the US, the administration of President Donald Trump said the security law was a “violation” of China’s commitments under the Sino-British Joint Declaration that established Hong Kong as an autonomous region.

“As Beijing now treats Hong Kong as ‘One Country, One System,’ so must the United States,” said John Ullyot, the National Security Council spokesperson. “The US will continue to take strong actions against those who smothered Hong Kong’s freedom and autonomy. We urge Beijing to reverse course immediately.”

Zhang Xiaoming, deputy director of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, said China would retaliate if the US imposed sanctions.

“Of course we're not intimidated. Gone are the days when Chinese people had to be at somebody's disposal or rely on others for the air one breathes,” Mr Zhang said.

Joe Biden, the Democratic presidential nominee, took aim at China while also accusing Mr Trump of paving the way for Beijing to act.

“It’s no wonder Beijing is acting with impunity. Time and again, President Trump has surrendered our values and reassured China’s autocrats they have a like-minded partner in the White House,” Mr Biden said.

The former vice-president added that Mr Trump’s record on China’s human rights abuses was “indefensible, marked by desperation for a failing trade deal, fealty to Xi Jinping, and an open admission that he’s willing to turn a blind eye to even the worst atrocities”.

Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, said the legislation demonstrated Beijing’s determination to improve the functioning of “one country, two systems”, the model of governance under which Hong Kong has enjoyed a high degree of autonomy. She said Hong Kong had failed to better educate and promote “the nation’s history and culture” to the city’s young people.

The law will allow Chinese state security agencies to operate openly in Hong Kong for the first time.

The legislation not only applies to people in Hong Kong but to those not in the territory. That means that foreign nationals who speak in favour of independence for the territory, or advocate sanctions against China, could be prosecuted upon entering Hong Kong or mainland China.

Damaging public transport with intent to cause “serious social harm” is considered a terrorist act under the new law, which also gives Beijing the power to adjudicate national security crimes when requested by Hong Kong’s new state security bureau.

Josep Borrell, EU foreign policy chief, said the law risked undermining Hong Kong’s autonomy and hurting the independence of the judiciary and the rule of law. “Both of these principles remain essential for the continued stability and prosperity of Hong Kong, and are therefore of vital interest to the European Union and the international community,” he said.

Additional reporting by Xinning Liu and Michael Peel

Letter in response to this article:

Foreboding over a Tiananmen rerun / From John Starrels, Former IMF senior staff, Chevy Chase, MD, US

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