Hong Kong riot police fired pepper pellets to disperse protesters in the heart of the global financial centre on Wednesday as new national security laws proposed by Beijing revived anti-government demonstrations.
Police also surrounded the Legislative Council where a Bill was due to be debated that would criminalise disrespect of the Chinese anthem, amid soaring tensions over perceived threats to the semi-autonomous city’s freedoms.
Protesters and pro-democracy politicians say Hong Kong’s National Anthem Bill, which aims to govern the use and playing of the Chinese national 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 (US$6,450) for those who insult the anthem. It also orders that primary and secondary school students in Hong Kong be taught to sing the March of the Volunteers, along with its history and etiquette.
The anthem Bill is set is expected to become law next month.
People of all ages took to the streets, some dressed in black, some wearing office clothes, and some hiding their identities with open umbrellas in scenes reminiscent of the unrest that shook the city last year.
A call to gather around the Legislative Council was scrapped due to a heavy presence of riot police.
Many shops, bank branches and office buildings closed early. Dozens of people were seen rounded up by riot police and made to sit on a sidewalk.
The move triggered the first big street unrest in Hong Kong in months on Sunday, with police firing tear gas and water cannon to disperse protesters.
Ahead of protests, authorities erected a two-metre wall made of plastic barriers filled with water around the Legislative Council, extending across a park up to Victoria Harbour.
In other parts of the city, protesters used bins and debris to block roads, while activists issued calls online for demonstrations in various locations later in the day.
Police said they had arrested at least 16 people on Wednesday, aged 14 to 40, for alleged crimes including possession of offensive weapons, possession of tools for illegal use and dangerous driving.
Protesters in a downtown shopping mall chanted “Liberate Hong Kong! Revolution of our times” and “Hong Kong independence, the only way out”, but dispersed as lookouts shouted a warning to “go shopping!” at the sight of police vans outside.
One protester was seen with a placard reading “one country, two systems is a lie”, referring to the political system put in place at Britain’s 1997 handover of the city to China that is meant to guarantee Hong Kong’s freedoms until at least 2047.
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 laws will 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.”