HONG KONG — Clashes erupted in Hong Kong’s main shopping district on Sunday afternoon as protesters took to the streets to rally against Beijing’s planned national security law for the semi-autonomous city.
Defying police warnings and bans on social gatherings because of the coronavirus pandemic, thousands of people gathered outside the Sogo department store in Causeway Bay. They chanted slogans such as “Fight for freedom. Stand with Hong Kong” and “Liberate Hong Kong. Revolution of our time.” Some set up roadblocks to paralyze traffic in the area.
Riot police fired rounds of tear gas and employed water cannons to disperse the crowd. Pro-democracy activist Tam Tak-chi was arrested on charges of conducting an unauthorized assembly. About 120 people have been arrested for taking part in an unlawful assembly, according to the Hong Kong Police Force, while officers were conducting stop-and-search operations across Hong Kong island.
The gathering is the first large-scale protest against the central government in Beijing since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic earlier this year.
The planned legislation would allow Beijing to further crackdown on dissent in the city. The bill is expected to be passed in China’s annual parliamentary session on May 28, and will be enacted in the coming months, bypassing Hong Kong’s legislature.
The new proposal targets activities such as “splitting the country, subverting state power,” as well as terrorism and foreign interference in Hong Kong. Critics and pro-democracy lawmakers said it will mark the end of “one country, two systems,” a framework that underpins Hong Kong’s autonomy and democratic freedoms when the former British colony returned to Chinese rule in 1997.
The move has drawn international condemnation. Nearly 200 political figures around the globe, including members of the U.S. Congress, signed a joint statement on Saturday to decry the proposed laws, saying they are a “comprehensive assault on the city’s autonomy, rule of law and fundamental freedoms.”
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi justified the move to impose the legislation at a news conference Sunday in Beijing. He said violence has escalated with the calls for independence, terrorism acts and intervention by external forces in Hong Kong affairs.
“This has caused serious harm to China’s national security, and threatened the ‘one country, two systems’ principles,” Wang told reporters at the National People’s Congress. “It is imperative to establish and improve the legal system and enforce a mechanism for safeguarding national security in the Hong Kong special administrative region.”
He added that the new bill “will not affect the high degree of autonomy of Hong Kong, the rights and freedoms of Hong Kong residents, or the legitimate rights and interests of foreign investors in Hong Kong.”
Pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong, who was at the demonstration, said he is “very likely” to be one of the targets of the law, but he would continue to fight by lobbying for support from other countries.
A protester who gave his surname as Ng told the Nikkei Asian Review that the planned law might mean the end of protests in the city.
“Before that day, we must make our voices heard in whatever ways we can,” he said.
Additional reporting by CK Tan