HONG KONG - Hong Kong police fired tear gas and used water cannon and pepper spray Sunday on thousands of protesters who turned out in droves to demonstrate against Beijing’s plan to impose national security laws on the Asian financial hub.
China Friday revealed its plan to bypass Hong Kong’s legislature to impose a national security law on Hong Kong to prevent and punish acts of “secession, subversion or terrorism activities” that threaten national security.
The move, which would also allow Chinese national security organs to set up agencies in Hong Kong, has been widely criticized around the world, with the U.S. threatening consequences for China.
On Sunday afternoon, thousands congregated in the downtown shopping districts of Causeway Bay and Wanchai, chanting anti-government slogans and singing “Glory to Hong Kong” - an unofficial anthem of the ongoing anti-government protest movement, which started last June.
The unapproved demonstration was originally intended to protest against another controversial law that would criminalize the mockery of the Chinese national anthem, but China’s plan to introduce national security law revealed in last week’s annual parliamentary meeting prompted more people to turn up on Sunday.
In contrast with the jovial atmosphere of approved protests in the past, a sense of nervousness and despondency pervaded in the unsanctioned protest Sunday, as protesters said they felt helpless in the face of the imminent enactment of the national security law, which is almost certain to pass next week at China’s National People’s Congress.
“I know it’s dangerous to come out today, but I am here precisely because the national security law is so dangerous,” said a said a 63-year-old wheel chair-bound man named Wong, who would not give his first name.
A 64-year-old woman who would not reveal her name said she wanted to “support our young people.
“I feel so sorry for our children and grandchildren, they have to live under China’s national security law,” she said.
A young father dressed in black who was holding the hands of his two young sons said, “We have done no wrong. It’s them who are afraid, not us.”
A young man waved a flag emblazoned with the message “Hong Kong Independence” and said he wanted to do “the right thing,” even if it meant going to jail under the new law forced upon Hong Kong.
Most of the slogans protesters chanted, such as “Rejuvenate Hong Kong, revolution of our time” or “Fight for freedom, Stand with Hong Kong” were often used in past protests, but the slogan “Hong Kong Independence, the only way” was heard for the first time, indicating people’s increasing antagonism towards China.
Until now, protesters over the past year largely targeted the Hong Kong government, as the controversial extradition law which triggered the protests was supposedly initiated by the city’s own government.
Police fired the first shot of tear gas 30 minutes into the initially peaceful rally, driving protesters running into side streets as shops and buildings hurriedly shuttered. Police later unleashed water cannon on protesters. Some protesters smashed traffic lights, blocked traffic with trash bins, traffic cones and railings, dug up bricks, and set small fires.
The police anti-riot vehicle shot out several bursts of a clear liquid in mid-afternoon, while more rounds of tear gas was fired on busy shopping streets. Police said some officers retreated after firing multiple rounds of tear gas, because people started throwing objects at them. They also shot pepper-balls.
Police said at least three officers were hurt after they were allegedly struck by bricks thrown at the police. They said glass bottles were thrown down from buildings. By late afternoon, the police said, more than 120 people had been arrested, mostly on illegal assembly charges.
“Police are taking resolute action to make arrests and to stop the unlawful and violent acts,” a statement said.
Earlier in the day, more than 20 pro-democracy politicians and activists staged smaller protests in groups of eight, to comply with social distancing rules in front of China’s liaison office against the proposed national security law.
"Under a tyrant, nobody is safe," former legislator Leung Kwok-Hung said. "Under the state security law, nobody is safe."