HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong police fired tear gas and water cannon to disperse thousands protesting on Sunday against Beijing’s plan to directly impose national security laws on the city, signalling a return to mass protests that roiled the financial hub last year.
Crowds thronged the bustling shopping district of Causeway Bay, where echoes of “Hong Kong independence, the only way out,” and other slogans rang through the streets.
A protester wearing a black hoodie and surgical mask held a banner that said: “I stand for Hong Kong’s independence.”
Calls for independence are anathema to China’s Communist Party leaders, who say such a notion for the Chinese-ruled city is a “red line” that cannot be crossed.
The proposed new national security framework stresses Beijing’s intent “to prevent, stop and punish” such acts.
The protest – the first since Beijing proposed national security laws on Thursday – poses a fresh challenge to Chinese President Xi Jinping as authorities struggle to tame public opposition to China’s tightening grip over the global financial hub.
“I am worried that after the implementation of the national security law, they will go after those being charged before and the police will be further out of control,” said Twinnie, 16, a secondary school student who declined to give her last name.
“I am afraid of being arrested but I still need to come out and protest for the future of Hong Kong.”
The demonstrations come amid concerns over the fate of the “one country, two systems” formula that has governed Hong Kong since the former British colony’s return to Chinese rule in 1997. The arrangement guarantees the city broad freedoms not seen on the mainland, including a free press and independent judiciary.
Sunday’s rally, the largest since COVID-19 lockdowns began, was initially organised against a national anthem bill but the proposed national security laws sparked calls for more people to take to the streets.
The city government sought on Sunday to reassure the public and foreign investors over the security laws, that have sent a chill through financial markets and drawn a rebuke from foreign governments, human rights groups and some business lobbies.
Police conducted stop-and-search operations in Causeway Bay and warned people not to violate a ban on gatherings of more than eight, imposed to curb the spread of coronavirus.
They said protesters hurled umbrellas, water bottles and other objects at them and they responded with tear gas “to stop the violent acts of rioters.”
Some protesters used bins, traffic cones and other debris to set up road blocks, leaving key thoroughfares deserted. Police said more than 40 people were arrested.
Many shops and other businesses shuttered early.
The chaotic scenes evoked memories of sometimes violent anti-government protests that roiled the city last year, drawing as many as two million people to one protest alone.
China has dismissed other countries’ complaints about the proposed legislation as “meddling,” saying the proposed laws will not harm Hong Kong autonomy or foreign investors.
In a bold challenge to the mainland authorities, a small group of democracy activists protested outside Beijing’s main representative office in the city, chanting, “National security law is destroying two systems.”
“It’s a moveable red line. In future they can arrest, lock up and silence anyone they want in the name of national security. We have to resist it,” protester Avery Ng of the League for Social Democrats told Reuters.
Nearly 200 political figures from around the world said in a statement the proposed laws were a “comprehensive assault on the city’s autonomy, rule of law and fundamental freedoms”.
Hong Kong has increasingly become a pawn in deteriorating relations between Washington and Beijing, and observers will be watching for any signs that the broader community is growing resigned to greater Chinese control or if activists are gearing up for a fresh wave of unrest.
The Chinese government’s top diplomat said the proposed legislation would target a narrow category of acts and would have no impact on the city’s freedoms nor the interests of foreign firms.
Last year’s anti-government protests plunged the city into its biggest political crisis in decades, battered the economy and posed the gravest popular challenge to President Xi since he came to power in 2012.
Reporting by James Pomfret, Jessie Pang, Donny Kwok, Twinnie Siu, Pak Yiu; Writing by Anne Marie Roantree; Editing by William Mallard and Stephen Coates