Hong Kong security tightened as lawmakers debate national anthem bill

Linda J. Dodson

HONG KONG — Security in Hong Kong was heightened on Wednesday morning as the city legislature prepared to debate a controversial bill that would punish behavior disrespectful of China’s national anthem.

Protesters had called for early-morning action to paralyze traffic and block roads near the Legislative Council in a bid to interrupt the LegCo meeting scheduled for 11 a.m. Yet, in the face of heavy police presence across the city, streets were quiet and traffic was largely undisrupted on Wednesday morning.

Officers have cleared roadblocks — set up by protesters using public trash bins and various debris — in multiple areas, the Hong Kong Police Force said in a statement on Facebook. Police also conducted citywide stop-and-search operations during the morning commute.

Five people, found to be in possession of petrol bombs and “suspicious” tools including goggles, helmets, gas masks and screwdrivers, were arrested on Wednesday morning, the police said.

Local media reported that at least 3,000 riot police officers would be ready to deal with “any potential flare-ups.” Hundreds of officers were deployed to guard to the LegCo complex ahead of the meeting. Main roads surrounding the building have been fenced off by 2-meter-tall water-filled barriers since Tuesday.

Political tensions in the former British colony have intensified in recent days after Beijing announced plans to enact a national security law for Hong Kong during its annual parliamentary session, bypassing the city’s lawmaking body.

Thousands of people took part in an unauthorized protest against the security law on Sunday in the first large-scale demonstration since the coronavirus outbreak began. Police fired tear gas and water cannons to disperse the crowds. More than 200 people were arrested on charges of illegal assembly.

Under the anthem bill, people who “intentionally insult” China’s national anthem, “March of the Volunteers,” could face fines of up to 50,000 Hong Kong dollars ($6,450) and three years in prison.

The controversy dates back to 2015 when fans began booing the anthem frequently at local soccer matches following the city’s Occupy Central protests.

The protesters’ strategy on Wednesday is reminiscent of events a year ago, when tens of thousands of protesters occupied roads outside the legislature building to halt the second reading of a since-withdrawn extradition bill, preventing pro-government lawmakers from entering the building.

The selection of members to Hong Kong’s legislature is designed in a way that favors pro-establishment groups. Pro-democracy advocates have demanded political reforms to allow all members of LegCo, as well as the city’s leader, to be directly elected by the public.

Meanwhile, President Donald Trump said on Tuesday that the U.S. would announce “a strong response” to the planned security legislation for Hong Kong by the end of the week.

White House spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany earlier said in a press briefing that Trump found it “hard to see how Hong Kong can remain a financial hub if China takes over.”

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