Police fired multiple rounds of tear gas in Hong Kong’s Causeway Bay shopping district on Sunday as thousands took to the streets to protest against Beijing’s planned national security law for the city, even as top Chinese officials sought to ease fears about its impact on local freedoms but remained stern about seeing it implemented.
Police said at least 180 people were arrested – mostly on suspicion of unauthorised assembly, unlawful assembly and disorderly conduct in a public place – in a crackdown as protesters spread out along streets of Causeway Bay and Wan Chai.
A water cannon truck was used and volleys of tear gas were fired in a series of confrontations as some radicals among the protesters defying the government’s coronavirus crowd restrictions blocked multiple roads, smashed traffic lights, lit small fires and hurled bricks dug up from pavements at police.
Some also vandalised shops, while at least two people objecting to the roadblocks were severely assaulted by black-clad groups.
Ten people were admitted to hospital, including a 51-year-old woman in critical condition, the Hospital Authority said. The other nine were either in a stable condition or later discharged from hospital. The woman, reportedly a cleaner with underlying heart problems, had suffered a panic attack and collapsed as a group of people rushed into a toilet where she was.
The protests erupted just hours after Chinese Vice-Premier Han Zheng, Beijing’s top leader in charge of Hong Kong, told local delegates to the national legislature that Beijing’s determination to push through the national security law should not be underestimated, and that mainland authorities would “implement it till the end”.
At the ongoing National People’s Congress session in Beijing, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi sought to ease concerns about the new law, saying it would not damage the city’s autonomy or freedoms.
The proposed legislation was aimed only at a “very narrow category of acts that seriously jeopardise national security”, such as “treason, secession, sedition or subversion”, he said.
The law would have “no impact on Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy, the rights and freedoms of Hong Kong residents, or the legitimate rights and interests of foreign investors in Hong Kong”, Wang said. “Instead of becoming unnecessarily worried, people should have more confidence in Hong Kong’s future. This will improve Hong Kong’s legal system and bring more stability, a stronger rule of law and a better business environment to Hong Kong.”
During the Sunday clashes, police raised blue flags warning protesters converging outside the Sogo department store to disperse before tear gas was first fired near the junction of Hennessy Road and Percival Street at 1.24pm.
Behind the store, a group of four clad in black was stopped and searched as protesters nearby chanted: “Liberate Hong Kong; revolution of our times.”
A 15-year-old secondary school student at the protest said social media posts had convinced him to “stay and fight” rather than move to another country over the legislation.
“When I first heard about Beijing’s plans to introduce the national security law, my desire to emigrate grew bigger,” he said. “But then I saw how many people were saying on social media that we need to come out and fight this law, so I decided I needed to stay and fight.”
At 2pm, protesters occupied Gloucester Road, while others holding a banner reading “heaven will destroy the Chinese Communist Party” began marching towards Wan Chai. There were also displays of American flags. Others could be heard cursing at riot police, with some yelling, “Hong Kong independence. The only way.”
Police fired pepper balls at one group on Gloucester Road, where they later said that “rioters climbed over railings and dashed through a flyover and multiple carriageways in the vicinity, causing serious obstruction to road traffic” and “they also rampaged through passing vehicles, posing serious threat to public safety”.
More protesters were arrested outside Sogo, and pepper balls were fired elsewhere in Causeway Bay later on.
Police issued a statement at 2pm saying “minimum necessary force, including tear gas” had been used, as protesters had thrown umbrellas and water bottles at them. Four officers from the police media liaison team were also said to be injured after protesters threw bricks and other items at them.
Hong Kong Law Society president Melissa Kaye Pang, meanwhile, said a lawyer had suffered serious injuries after being assaulted by a group of black-clad people in Causeway Bay. Pang, who expressed anger and sadness over the attack, said the lawyer had been sent to hospital.
Videos online showed the lawyer, 40, being kicked and struck with umbrellas. Police said they were searching for 10 male suspects, aged 20 to 40.
Police later said some protesters had vandalised shops in Causeway Bay, breaking their windows, while others had dug up bricks from the street.
An armoured vehicle and water cannon were deployed along Hennessy Road, with members of the police’s Special Tactical Squad on top of the armoured car pointing their weapons at surrounding crowds.
At Canal Road, the situation grew tense as police raised the blue flag ordering the public to disperse several times, warning off reporters and district councillors with threats to use pepper spray. The water cannon was later fired at protesters as they attempted to place barricades on the street, while more tear gas was used outside the Hysan Place shopping centre.
Student activist Joshua Wong Chi-fung, who was at the scene early on, said he planned to continue lobbying for support from other countries, even if that meant falling afoul of the looming national security law.
“When Beijing announced the law, it was time to fight back,” Wong said.
One protester who gave his name as Tang said he had observed more suppression by the Hong Kong government in the past two weeks, including the taking over of the Legislative Council’s key House Committee by pro-establishment lawmakers.
“There may be little we can do, but we still have to come out irrespective of the outcome,” he said.
Minutes before the first round of tear gas was fired, People Power activist Tam Tak-chi was arrested while conducting what he called a “health talk” outside Sogo, saying such gatherings were exempt from Covid-19 rules banning groups of more than eight people.
“This is a health talk and is exempt from the rules. We have nurses here,” he said. He went on to accuse local pro-Beijing figures of wanting to make Hong Kong like any other mainland Chinese city.
Police warned Tam he was conducting an unauthorised assembly before arresting him shortly thereafter.
“Fight for freedom! Stand with Hong Kong!” he chanted as he was taken away.
After his arrest, more than 100 people gathered outside the store, chanting, “Hongkongers, revenge!” and “Hong Kong independence is the only way out!”
Earlier in the day, the police force urged citizens on its Facebook page not to take part in any unauthorised assemblies, saying it had mobilised enough officers to take decisive action and make arrests. Groups of riot police in full gear had begun gathering in locations near the department store before noon.
The protest took place two days after a resolution to “prevent, frustrate and punish” threats to national security in Hong Kong was presented to China’s legislature. The draft legislation would outlaw acts of secession, subversion and terrorism.
The resolution is expected to be passed on May 28, authorising the NPC Standing Committee, the country’s top legislative body, to craft a tailor-made national security law and impose it on Hong Kong, bypassing the city’s legislature.
In a statement on Sunday night, the Hong Kong government said it strongly condemned rioters’ illegal acts and supported the resolute enforcement actions of police.
A spokesman said the fundamental objective of the central government’s decision to table the resolution was to safeguard national security and the prosperity and stability of Hong Kong, and to better protect the legitimate rights and freedoms of all people.
The violent acts showed that advocates of Hong Kong independence and rioters remained rampant, reinforcing the need and urgency of the legislation, he said.
The new law would require the Hong Kong government to set up new institutions to safeguard sovereignty and allow mainland agencies to operate in the city as needed.
In 2003, the Hong Kong government was forced to shelve a national security bill after an estimated half a million people took to the streets to oppose the legislation, amid fears it would curb their rights and freedoms.
Now, Beijing has decided to introduce a national security law via Annex III of the city’s mini-constitution, the Basic Law, meaning the new law will be promulgated without the need for local legislation.
Hong Kong’s opposition politicians have said the plan to introduce the law by fiat is tantamount to adopting a “one country, one system” model in the city, abandoning the “one country, two systems” principle that guarantees it a high degree of autonomy.
Sunday’s demonstration was also called to protest against a bill that would criminalise abuse of the Chinese national anthem in Hong Kong. The anthem bill, which city leader Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor has called a top priority, provides for jail terms of up to three years.
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