Hong Kong police arrest 360 as thousands protest China security laws

Detained protesters and secondary students face the wall while waiting for police to record their details. (AP pic)

HONG KONG: Police in Hong Kong fired pepper pellets and made 360 arrests as thousands of people took to the streets on Wednesday in anger over national security legislation proposed by China that has raised international alarm over freedoms in the city.

In the heart of the financial district, riot police fired pepper pellets to disperse a crowd. Elsewhere police rounded up groups of suspected protesters, making them sit on sidewalks before searching their belongings.

Late into the evening, protesters were still cramming sidewalks, chanting for full democracy and for Hong Kong to seek independence from China, saying this is now “the only way out”.

A heavy police presence around the Legislative Council had earlier deterred protesters from disrupting a debate of a bill that would criminalise disrespect of the Chinese national anthem. The bill is expected to be passed into law next month.

Angry over perceived threats to the semi-autonomous city’s freedoms, people of all ages rallied, some dressed in black, some wearing office clothes or school uniforms and some hiding their faces beneath open umbrellas in scenes reminiscent of the unrest that shook Hong Kong last year.

“Although you’re afraid inside your heart, you need to speak out,” said Chang, 29, a clerk and protester dressed in black with a helmet respirator and goggles in her backpack.

Many shops, banks and offices closed early.

National security legislation

The latest protests follow the Chinese government’s proposal for national security legislation aimed at tackling secession, subversion and terrorism in Hong Kong.

The planned laws could see Chinese intelligence agencies set up bases in Hong Kong.

The proposal, unveiled in Beijing last week, triggered the first large street protests in Hong Kong for months on Sunday, with police firing tear gas and water cannon.

Riot police stand guard during a protest near the Central Government Complex. (AP pic)

The United States, European Union, Britain 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.

Despite this, specific details of the bill remain unclear, and won’t be enacted until later.

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, though she gave no specifics.

Asian shares slipped over the rising tension between the United States and China. Hong Kong’s bourse led declines with a 0.46% drop.

More rallies in coming weeks

Protesters throughout the day had chanted “Liberate Hong Kong! Revolution of our times”.

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.

As the protests in the financial district died down, protesters gathered in the working-class Mong Kok district, where protests flared repeatedly last year. Marchers there briefly blocked roads before being chased away by police.

The protesters say they will continue fighting what they call the “evil” law, with more rallies planned in coming weeks including on June 4, the 31st anniversary of China’s bloody crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.