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Marking the anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to Chinese control, a senior city official defended Beijing’s national security law to crush pro-democracy rallies and said on Thursday it would still be used in the country. over the coming year to ensure stability.

Police cordoned off Victoria Park – until recently the site of the annual pro-democracy rallies marking the 1997 handover – and put up flags warning people they could be prosecuted if they entered or remained in the area closed. Police said there had been online calls encouraging people to participate in an unauthorized protest.

The security law was implemented a year ago as authorities cracked down on dissent after Hong Kong was rocked by massive anti-government protests in 2019. Critics say Beijing reneged on its promise to retain privileges specialties of Hong Kong for 50 years – the autonomy of its courts and legal system, civil liberties which include a free press, freedom of speech and the freedom to take to the streets in protest.

Hong Kong Chief Secretary John Lee said the National Security Law states that human rights are respected and allows residents to enjoy freedom of the press and freedom of assembly.

However, large-scale protests were banned and a number of pro-democracy activists and journalists were arrested, ceased public activities or left Hong Kong.

For two years in a row, authorities have banned an annual candlelight vigil on June 4 commemorating the bloody 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square and the July 1 handover protest, citing pandemic distancing restrictions social.

On Wednesday, Chow Hang-tung, one of the main organizers of the June 4 vigil, was arrested again on suspicion of instigating others to participate in an unauthorized rally.

There was a heavy police presence in the popular Causeway Bay shopping district, with officers arresting and searching some people. They took pro-democracy activist Alexandra Wong, commonly known as Grandmother Wong, who was waving a British flag.

Police said in a Facebook post that three people were arrested in Causeway Bay for disorderly conduct and at least 11 others were arrested in the Mong Kok neighborhood on suspicion of distributing seditious material.

Last month, police arrested seven journalists and executives from the now defunct Apple Daily, a pro-democracy newspaper that was a vocal critic of the governments in Hong Kong and China. Authorities also froze $ 2.3 million in assets linked to Apple Daily, forcing it to cease operations last week.

The Western government has criticized the arrests of journalists. On Thursday, four major Nordic newspapers published an open letter protesting the arrests and the shutdown of Apple Daily.

” Now that’s enough. The world can no longer passively watch China gradually suck the air of press freedom in Hong Kong, ”Christian Jensen, editor of Danish newspaper Politiken, wrote in the front page letter. “Sadly, the last – and perhaps naive – hope finally died out when the free Apple Daily had to succumb to the denial of free speech by the authorities.”

Lee was speaking at a reception commemorating the 24th anniversary of the former British colony’s return to China. It coincides with the centenary of the Chinese Communist Party on the mainland, which was attended by Hong Kong’s top leader, Carrie Lam.

Lee said Hong Kong was on a rebound as the National Security Law restored social and political stability.

“Our team has more confidence than ever in the prospects for Hong Kong. In the coming year, we will continue to defend national security with determination and improve the implementation of the principle of one country, two systems, ”he said.

In Beijing, Chinese President Xi Jinping said in a keynote address at a party centenary celebration that China will maintain the “one country, two systems” framework in Hong Kong and Macau to ensure full sovereignty, social stability and maintain prosperity in both countries. Regions.

Thursday morning, in the midst of a strong police presence, four activists including Raphael Wong, the leader of the League of Social Democrats political party, marched through the streets of Wan Chai carrying a banner calling for the release of political prisoners.

While authorities say social stability has returned to Hong Kong, some residents choose to leave the city. Holders of the UK Overseas National Passport, which was issued to residents before the 1997 surrender, are now eligible to travel to the UK on special visas.

In recent days, long lines of people have thronged the check-in counters of airlines serving the UK

Among them was Serena Leung, who booked a flight to Britain on Wednesday with her two daughters aged 5 and 7.

“I think the situation for human rights, freedom and education in the UK is better than in Hong Kong,” she said. “Although the UK is not a perfect country, we still have confidence that it will remain so for the next 10 or 20 years. But I have no faith in Hong Kong, it will only get worse. “

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Associated Press press assistants Matthew Cheng and Janice Lo in Hong Kong and Jan M. Olsen in Copenhagen, Denmark, contributed to this report.