Police in Hong Kong fired pepper pellets and made 360 arrests Wednesday as thousands of people took to the streets in anger over national security legislation proposed by China that’s raising international alarm over freedoms in the city.
In the heart of the financial district, riot police fired pepper pellets to disperse a crowd, and elsewhere in the city police rounded up groups of dozens 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 deterred protesters planning to disrupt the debate of a bill that would criminalize disrespect of the Chinese national anthem.
Angry over perceived threats to the semi-autonomous city’s freedoms, people of all ages took to the streets, 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.
Watch | Hong Kong on edge as security forces confront pro-democracy supporters:
“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.
Intelligence agencies could set up bases
The latest protests follow the Chinese government’s proposal for national security legislation aimed at tackling secession, subversion and terrorism in Hong Kong, terms officials in both Hong Kong and Beijing have used increasingly in regard to the pro-democracy protests.
The planned laws could see Chinese intelligence agencies set up bases in Hong Kong.
The proposal, unveiled in Beijing last week, triggered the first big street unrest in Hong Kong in months on Sunday, with police firing tear gas and water cannon to disperse protesters.
Today, I reported to Congress that Hong Kong is no longer autonomous from China, given facts on the ground. The United States stands with the people of Hong Kong.
The United States, Britain, the European Union, Canada 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.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said he certified on Wednesday to Congress that Hong Kong does not continue to warrant special treatment under American laws in the same way that applied when the region was still under the British law before July 1997.
“No reasonable person can assert today that Hong Kong maintains a high degree of autonomy from China, given facts on the ground,” Pompeo said in a statement.
“It is now clear that China is modelling Hong Kong after itself,” he added.
It now falls to President Donald Trump to decide to end some, all or none of the economic privileges Hong Kong currently enjoys.
Revoking the special status would have far-reaching trade and investment implications, including on visas. Some 85,000 U.S. citizens are in Hong Kong, according to the most recent State Department figures.
As of 2018, the stock of U.S. foreign direct investment in Hong Kong stood at $82.5 billion US, according to U.S. Commerce Department data. And there are more than 1,300 American companies with business operations in Hong Kong, including nearly every major U.S. financial firm.
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.
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.
Protesters in a downtown shopping mall chanted “Liberate Hong Kong! Revolution of our times” and “Hong Kong independence, the only way out.”
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.
“I’m scared … if you don’t come out today, you’ll never be able to come out. This is legislation that directly affects us,” said Ryan Tsang, a hotel manager.
As the protests in the financial district died down, hundreds of people gathered in the working class Mong Kok district on the Kowloon peninsula, where protests flared repeatedly last year.
Marchers briefly blocked roads before being chased away by police
Most of the arrests were for illegal assembly, police said.
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.