Hong Kong police yesterday cast a dragnet around the territory’s Legislative Council, firing pepper-ball rounds and arresting hundreds as they stamped down on protests against a bill banning insults to the Chinese 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 pro-democracy rallies.
That move has prompted US President Donald Trump to warn that Hong Kong might lose its status as a global financial center if the territory’s freedoms and vaunted judicial independence are swept aside.
Yesterday’s protests were sparked by a debate over a new law that would criminalize insults to the national anthem with a sentence of up to three years in prison, the latest measure activists say is eroding freedoms in the territory.
Police surrounded the legislature with water-filled barriers and conducted widespread stop-and-search operations in a bid to deter mass gatherings.
Small flash mob rallies were held in Causeway Bay, Mong Kok and Central — the latter broken up by officers firing crowd-control rounds filled with a pepper-based irritant.
More than 300 people were arrested, mostly on suspicion of holding an unlawful assembly, police said.
Live images showed that many of those detained were teenagers.
“It’s like a de facto curfew now,” said Hong Kong Legislator Nathan Law (羅冠聰), a prominent pro-democracy advocate. “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 that they “respect the right of residents to express their views peacefully, but it must be carried out legally,” adding that crowds were blocking roads.
Public gatherings of more than eight people are banned under emergency COVID-19 disease prevention measures.
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 territory’s return from the UK to China, Hong Kong is supposed to be guaranteed certain liberties until 2047 that are denied to those on the mainland.
The deal fueled the territory’s rise as a world-class financial center and gave Chinese companies a crucial channel to raise capital, but in the past few years political unrest has swept through the territory, something Beijing is 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 mainland.
Police said that officers uncovered some Molotov cocktails as well as other “illegal” items, such as gas masks, hammers and pliers during stop-and-search operations yesterday.
Trump on Tuesday said that he is preparing to take action over China’s efforts to impose a national security law on Hong Kong.
“We’re doing something now. I think you’ll find it very interesting, but I won’t be talking about it today,” Trump told reporters at the White House.
He indicated that details would be released before the end of this week.
Trump did not say if the plan involved sanctions or changes to the territory’s special trading status, but White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said that it was “hard to see how Hong Kong can remain a financial hub if China takes over.”
“He’s displeased with China’s efforts,” she said of the president.
Additional reporting by the Guardian
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