Pro-democracy protesters gathered at a shopping centre on Tuesday in Hong Kong [Vincent Yu/AP Photo]

A controversial national security law imposed by China on Hong Kong has come into force, punishing crimes of secession, sedition and collusion with foreign forces with terms of up to life in prison.

Beijing says the law is necessary to deal with separatism and foreign interference, but critics fear the legislation, which was approved in record time and not made public until after it was passed on Tuesday, will outlaw dissent and destroy the autonomy promised when Hong Kong was returned from the United Kingdom to China in 1997.

Chinese President Xi Jinping signed the contentious law some 40 days after the introduction of the bill by the

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