Hong Kong police have fired pepper pellets to disperse protesters as hundreds of people gathered in the centre of the financial hub to oppose a controversial bill on China’s national anthem and a planned move by Beijing to impose a national security law on the semi-autonomous territory.
Amid rising tensions, riot police on Wednesday were deployed around Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, where the measure that would criminalise disrespect of the Chinese national anthem was due to be debated.
Angry over perceived threats to the city’s freedoms, people of all ages took to the streets of the Central district, some dressed in black, some wearing office clothes and some hiding their faces beneath open umbrellas in scenes reminiscent of the unrest that shook Hong Kong for several months last year.
Police quickly arrived and used pepper ball guns to disperse protesters. Officers were seen rounding up dozens of people, making them sit on a pavement before searching them.
Police said they had arrested about 240 people in three districts, most for illegal assembly.
The latest protests in Hong Kong follow the Chinese government’s proposal for national security legislation aimed at tackling secession, subversion and “terrorist” activities in the city. The planned laws could see Chinese intelligence agencies set up bases in Hong Kong.
The proposal, unveiled in Beijing last week, triggered the first major street unrest in Hong Kong in months on Sunday, with police firing tear gas and water cannon to disperse protesters.
The United States, Australia, Britain, Canada and others have expressed concern about the legislation, widely seen as a possible turning point for China’s freest city and one of the world’s main financial hubs.
But Chinese authorities and the Beijing-backed government in Hong Kong say there is no threat to the city’s high degree of autonomy and the new security law would be tightly focused.
“It’s for the long-term stability of Hong Kong and China, it won’t affect the freedom of assembly and speech, and it won’t affect the city’s status as a financial centre,” Hong Kong Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung told reporters.
“It would provide a stable environment for businesses.”
US President Donald Trump, already at odds with Beijing over trade and the novel coronavirus pandemic, said on Tuesday Washington would this week announce a strong response to the planned legislation.
China responded by saying it would take necessary countermeasures to any foreign interference.
Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen pledged humanitarian relief for any Hong Kong people fleeing to the self-ruled island while Japan said it was “strongly concerned” about the situation.
Protesters and pro-democracy politicians say Hong Kong’s national anthem bill, which aims to govern the use and playing of the Chinese anthem, represents another sign of what they see as accelerating interference from Beijing.
The bill carries penalties of up to three years’ jail and or fines of up to HK$50,000 ($6,450) for insulting the anthem. It also orders that primary and secondary school students in Hong Kong be taught to sing the anthem, March of the Volunteers, and learn its history.
In Wednesday’s protest, participants in a central shopping centre chanted “Liberate Hong Kong! Revolution of our times” and “Hong Kong independence, the only way out”.
One protester was seen with a placard reading “one country, two systems is a lie”, referring to a political system put in place at Britain’s 1997 handover of the city to China, which is meant to guarantee Hong Kong’s freedoms until at least 2047.
“I’m scared … if you don’t come out today, you’ll never be able to come out. This is legislation that directly affects us,” Ryan Tsang, a hotel manager, was quoted as saying by Reuters news agency.
As the protests in the financial district died down, hundreds of people gathered in the working-class Mong Kok district on the Kowloon peninsula, where protests flared repeatedly last year.
The anthem bill is set for a second reading on Wednesday and is expected to become law next month.