HONG KONG – Hong Kong police have fired tear gas and water cannon to disperse thousands of people who gathered on Sunday to protest Beijing’s plan to impose national security laws on the city.
In a return to the turmoil of Hong Kong last year, crowds thronged Causeway Bay’s shopping district, despite curbs imposed to curb the corona virus. Chants of ‘Hong Kong independence, the only way out’ echoed through the streets.
For Communist Party leaders, calls for independence for the semi-autonomous city are anathema, and the proposed new national security framework highlights Beijing’s intention to prevent, halt and punish such acts.
At nightfall, police and protesters faced each other in Wan Chai’s entertainment district.
The events of the day pose a new challenge to Beijing authority as it struggles to tame the public opposition because of the tightening hold on Hong Kong, a trading and business port for mainland China.
Security laws have also worried financial markets and received disapproval from foreign governments, human rights organizations and some business lobbies.
“I’m afraid they will go after the defendants after the implementation of the national security law and the police will get further out of hand,” said Twinnie, 16, a high school student who refused to give her surname.
“I’m afraid of getting arrested, but I still have to come out to protest for Hong Kong’s future.”
The demonstrations stem from concerns about the fate of the “one country, two systems” formula that Hong Kong has mastered since the return of the former British colony in 1997 to Chinese rule in 1997. The settlement guarantees broad freedoms that do not can be seen on the mainland, including a free press and independent judiciary.
Washington said on Sunday that China’s proposed legislation could lead to US sanctions.
“It seems that with this national security law they are in fact taking over Hong Kong and if they do … State Secretary Pompeo is unlikely to be able to confirm that Hong Kong maintains a high degree of autonomy and whether that is happening, sanctions will be imposed to Hong Kong and China, ”national security adviser Robert O’Brien told NBC television.
While the city government wanted to reassure the new laws, police conducted stop-and-search operations in Causeway Bay, warning people not to violate a ban on gatherings of more than eight people.
That restriction, imposed to stem the spread of the coronavirus, has largely kept the protesters off the streets in recent months.
Protesters placed roadblocks and threw umbrellas, water bottles and other objects, police said, adding that they responded with tear gas and carried out more than 120 arrests.
Many stores and other businesses are closed early.
The scenes evoked memories of last year’s sometimes violent protests against the government, which drew up to two million people in the largest single protest.
‘WE MUST RESIST’
A small group of democracy activists protested outside Beijing’s main representative office in the city, shouting, “National security law destroys two systems.”
“In the future, they can arrest, lock up, and silence anyone on behalf of national security. We have to resist it, “protester Avery Ng of the Social Democrats League told Reuters.
Nearly 200 political figures from around the world said in a statement that the proposed laws are a “comprehensive attack on the city’s autonomy, the rule of law and fundamental freedoms”.
China has rejected foreign complaints as “interference” and said the proposed laws do not harm Hong Kong’s autonomy or investors.
Beijing’s top diplomat said the proposed legislation would target a narrow category of actions and would not affect the city’s freedoms or the interests of foreign companies.
Last year’s anti-government protests plunged Hong Kong into its biggest political crisis in decades, weighing on the economy and posing the biggest challenge for President Xi Jinping since taking office in 2012.