Hong Kong police have fired pepper pellets to disperse protesters as hundreds of people gathered in the centre of the financial hub to oppose a controversial bill on China’s national anthem and a planned move by Beijing to impose a national security law on the semi-autonomous territory.
Amid rising tensions, riot police on Wednesday were deployed around Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, where the measure that would criminalise disrespect of the Chinese national anthem was due to be debated.
Angry over perceived threats to the city’s freedoms, people of all ages took to the streets of the Central district, some dressed in black, some wearing office clothes and some hiding their faces beneath open umbrellas in scenes reminiscent of the unrest that shook Hong Kong for several months last year.
Police quickly arrived and used pepper ball guns to disperse protesters. Officers were seen rounding up dozens of people, making them sit on a pavement before searching them.
Police said they had arrested about 240 people in three districts, most for illegal assembly.
“Hong Kong’s government has warned that it is prepared to continue cracking down hard if protesters continue to defy orders to stay off the streets,” Al Jazeera’s Adrian Brown, reporting from the centre of the city, said.
“And the police warned that people taking part in [an illegal] assembly risk a jail term of up to five years,” Brown added.
The latest protests in Hong Kong follow the Chinese government’s proposal for national security legislation aimed at tackling secession, subversion and “terrorist” activities in the city. The planned laws could see Chinese intelligence agencies set up bases in Hong Kong.
The proposal, unveiled in Beijing last week, triggered the first major street unrest in Hong Kong in months on Sunday, with police firing tear gas and water cannon to disperse protesters.
The United States, Australia, Britain, 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.
But 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.
SOURCE: AL JAZEERA AND NEWS AGENCIES