Hong Kong police have used teargas, pepper spray and water cannon on crowds after thousands took to the streets in protest against Beijing’s declaration that it intends to impose national security laws on the semi-autonomous region.
Thousands of Protesters defied social distancing laws to attend an unauthorised rally and march in downtown Hong Kong, one of the biggest gatherings since the pandemic began.
In contrast to marches and rallies last year, demonstrators were visibly tense in anticipation of a harsh police crackdown.
Large crowds had begun peacefully marching up Hennessy Road when police fired multiple rounds of teargas within 30 minutes of the protest’s official start time.
Shops and buildings quickly shut their doors, and people ran into side streets and pedestrian overpasses before soon returning to Hong Kong’s busiest arterial main road.
Groups built makeshift barricades as police chased people through streets, making arrests and rounding up others to search them.
Police fire tear gas on protesters during a planned protests against a proposal to enact a new security legislation in Hong Kong on May 24, 2020.
Several people were hospitalised, including two people who objected to protesters building roadblocks, according to police and media reports.
“Terrorism is growing in the city and activities which harm national security, such as ‘Hong Kong independence’, become more rampant,” Secretary for Security John Lee said in a statement.
“In just a few months, Hong Kong has changed from one of the safest cities in the world to a city shrouded in the shadow of violence,” he said, adding national security laws were needed to safeguard the city’s prosperity and stability.
In a return of the unrest that roiled Hong Kong last year, crowds thronged the streets of the city on Sunday in defiance of curbs imposed to contain the coronavirus, with chants of “Hong Kong independence, the only way out,” echoing through the streets.
Calls for independence are anathema to Beijing, which considers Hong Kong an inalienable part of the country. The proposed new national security framework stresses Beijing’s intent “to prevent, stop and punish” such acts.
Agencies issuing statements in support of the legislation included the Commissioner of Correctional Services, and Hong Kong Customs.
Financial Secretary Paul Chan wrote on his blog on Sunday the national security law “itself” does not affect investor confidence, only the “misunderstanding” of it does.
“The central government has already said the law is targeted at the minority of people who are suspected of threatening national security and will not affect the rights of the general public.”
The United States, Australia, Britain, Canada and others have expressed concerns about the legislation, widely seen as a potential turning point for China’s freest city and one of the world’s leading financial hubs.
Taiwan, which has become a refuge for a small but growing number of pro-democracy protesters fleeing Hong Kong, will provide the people of Hong Kong with “necessary assistance”, President Tsai Ing-wen said.