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Members of the Chinese military orchestra perform on Tiananmen Square during the celebration marking the 100th founding anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party on July 1, 2021 in Beijing, China.Lintao Zhang/Getty Images

The “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” cannot be stopped, President Xi Jinping told a crowd in Beijing Thursday, in a speech marking 100 years since the founding of the ruling Communist Party.

Dressed in a grey Mao suit and speaking from the rostrum above Tiananmen Square, Mr. Xi said China “will never allow any foreign force to bully, oppress or subjugate us.”

“Anyone who attempts to do so will find themselves on a collision course with a great wall of steel forged by over 1.4 billion Chinese people,” he added, to loud cheers and applause.

While not as stridently nationalistic as some speeches he has given in the past, Mr. Xi reiterated long-standing calls for the unification of Taiwan with China, and warned the world against underestimating the “strong will and strong power of the Chinese people to safeguard territorial integrity and sovereignty.”

Nowhere was that power – and willingness to brook international condemnation – more evident this week than in Hong Kong.

In 2019, when Beijing marked 70 years since the founding of the People’s Republic of China with a grand military parade, the anniversary was overshadowed by protests in Hong Kong, where tens of thousands marched against the government and some engaged in violent clashes with police.

That demonstration took place after months of concerted action by pro-democracy activists, the biggest challenge to Chinese rule over the territory since its handover from Britain in 1997. Beijing responded last year by imposing a national security law on the city, bypassing the local administration and parliament to ban secession, subversion and collusion with foreign forces.

In the 12 months since, the law has transformed the once fractious city into somewhere increasingly reminiscent of the Chinese mainland. More than 100 people have been arrested, including nearly every prominent opposition figure, while others have fled overseas.

The law has had a major chilling effect on the city’s once vibrant political scene. Parties have disbanded, the election system has been overhauled, key protest slogans banned, and people have been encouraged to report offences to a “national security hotline.”

Beyond this, schools must now focus on “patriotic education,” and journalists are facing new restrictions, with the popular pro-democracy tabloid Apple Daily forced to stop printing after the authorities froze its finances and detained top executives.

Hong Kong was once dubbed the “city of protest,” but public demonstrations are becoming a thing of the past.

July 1 is the anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover to Chinese rule, and for more than two decades since 1997, it has been marked by mass protests, with tens of thousands taking to the streets to call for greater democracy. Those annual protests, along with the candlelit vigil for the 1989 massacre in Tiananmen Square held every June 4, were emblematic of the relative freedoms Hong Kong had compared with the rest of China, under the “one country, two systems” policy instituted following the end of British rule.

No longer. Police banned the June 4 memorial and this week refused permission for the July 1 march to go ahead as well. In a statement, the authorities warned anyone taking part in the banned event could face up to five years in prison.

Ahead of Thursday, one of the few leading opposition activists not already jailed, barrister Chow Hang-tung, was detained for allegedly encouraging people to take part in the banned July 1 rally. She was already facing charges related to the cancelled June 4 vigil.

In a statement posted to her social media, Ms. Chow said she had not expected to spend the two key anniversaries in a police cell.

“It’s persecution, and also an honour,” she wrote. “The Party and the State are [treating] me as someone important. But on July 1 … I am only one of the millions of Hong Kongers who want to make their voices heard. Detaining me will not shut everyone else up.

“If they want to punish someone as a warning to others, we need to tell them that the people of Hong Kong will not be deterred,” Ms. Chow said, urging supporters to “hang in there.”

Even with most organizers behind bars, police were not taking any chances. As dignitaries attended a flag-raising ceremony on the Hong Kong harbour to mark 24 years of Chinese rule, thousands of officers fanned out across the city, and a water cannon truck and armoured vehicle were both patrolling central Hong Kong.

Open this photo in gallery:Police cordon off Hong Kong's Victoria Park on July 1, 2021. The anniversary of the city's handover to China is traditionally marked by protests, but a pro-democracy rally was banned.

Police cordon off Hong Kong's Victoria Park on July 1, 2021. The anniversary of the city's handover to China is traditionally marked by protests, but a pro-democracy rally was banned.James Griffiths/The Globe and Mail

A tiny march was held in the early hours of Thursday, by four members of the opposition League of Social Democrats, who called for the “release of political prisoners” amid a sea of police blocking them from reaching the flag-raising venue.

Around midday, police moved to close off Victoria Park, the traditional starting point of the July 1 protest. Surrounding streets in the Causeway Bay area were also cordoned off, and many passersby were subject to stop and search, especially young people and anyone wearing black, the colour of the opposition movement. At least three people were arrested on minor public order offences, police said.

In a report this week, Amnesty International said the national security law had put Hong Kong “on a rapid path to becoming a police state and created a human-rights emergency for the people living there.”

Speaking in Beijing, Mr. Xi praised the national security law for maintaining “the long-term prosperity and stability of Hong Kong.”

“We have never bullied, oppressed or subjugated the people of any other country, and we never will,” he added.

With a report from Alexandra Li

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