Hong Kong police cast a dragnet around the financial hub’s legislature on Wednesday, firing pepper-ball rounds and arresting hundreds as they stamped down on protests against a bill banning insults to China’s national anthem.
The latest unrest comes days after China announced separate plans to impose a sweeping national security law on Hong Kong following last year’s huge and often violent pro-democracy rallies.
That move has prompted US President Donald Trump to warn that Hong Kong might lose its status as a global financial centre if the city’s freedoms and vaunted judicial independence are swept aside.
Wednesday’s protests were sparked by a debate over a new law that will criminalise insults to the national anthem with up to three years in jail, the latest measure activists say is eroding freedoms in the city.
Police surrounded the city’s legislature with water-filled barriers and conducted widespread stop-and-search operations in a bid to deter mass gatherings.
Small flashmob rallies occurred in the districts of Causeway Bay, Mong Kok and Central, the latter broken up by officers firing crowd-control rounds filled with a pepper-based irritant.
Police said more than 300 people were arrested, mostly on suspicion of holding an unlawful assembly. Live images showed many of those detained were teenagers.
Small confrontations continued into the evening in Mong Kok, a district that saw frequent protests last year, with police making further arrests.
“It’s like a de facto curfew now,” Nathan Law, a prominent pro-democracy advocate told AFP. “I think the government has to understand why people are really angry.”
“You can see there are police every corner, it’s like martial law in force,” added a woman, who gave her nickname Bean, after she was searched.
In a statement police said they “respect the right of residents to express their views peacefully, but it must be carried out legally”, adding crowds were blocking roads.
Public gatherings of more than eight people are currently banned under emergency anti-coronavirus measures, although the city has halted its outbreak.
Requests by civil society groups to hold protests have been denied for months by authorities citing both the pandemic and last year’s unrest.
Under the “one country, two systems” model agreed before the city’s return from Britain to China, Hong Kong is supposed to be guaranteed certain liberties until 2047 that are denied to those on the mainland.
The deal fuelled the city’s rise as a world-class financial centre and gave Chinese companies a crucial channel to raise capital.
But in recent years political unrest has swept through the city, something Beijing’s communist rulers are determined to end.
The legislature was blockaded and later trashed by demonstrators during last year’s protests as officials tried to fast-track an eventually scrapped bill allowing extraditions to the authoritarian mainland.
Police said officers uncovered some Molotov cocktails as well as other “illegal” items such as gas masks, hammers and pliers during stop-and-search operations Wednesday.
Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing government has vowed to pass the national anthem law as soon as possible.
“As Hong Kongers, we have a moral responsibility to respect the national anthem,” Matthew Cheung, Hong Kong’s de facto deputy leader, told reporters before the debate began.
Beijing has been infuriated by Hong Kongers — especially football fans — booing the national anthem to signal dissatisfaction with China.
The city’s pro-democracy opposition say the bill is a fresh attempt to criminalise dissent.
Fights have broken out between rival lawmakers over the legislation.
Pro-democracy politicians are prevented from holding a majority in the legislature, only some of whose members are elected by popular vote.
Wednesday marked the bill’s second reading and the debate is set to continue into next week when it will likely be approved and become law.
Beijing portrays Hong Kong’s democracy protests as a foreign-backed plot to destabilise the motherland.
Activists say their rallies, which have been attended by millions, are the only way to voice opposition in a city without fully free elections.
Last week Beijing announced plans to enact legislation banning secession, subversion, terrorism and foreign interference.
That law, which has yet to be published in full, will bypass the legislature and be drawn up directly by Beijing.
One measure announced includes plans to allow China’s security agencies and secret police to openly set up shop in Hong Kong for the first time.
The move has alarmed investors and some western governments, with the stock market suffering its biggest drop in five years last week.