Hong Kong riot police fired pepper pellets to disperse protesters in the heart of the global financial centre on Wednesday, as new national security laws proposed by Beijing revived anti-government demonstrations.
Police also surrounded the Legislative Council where a bill was due to be debated that would criminalise disrespect of the Chinese anthem, amid soaring tensions over perceived threats to the semi-autonomous city’s freedoms.
People of all ages took to the streets, some dressed in black, some wearing office clothes, and some hiding their identities with open umbrellas in scenes reminiscent of the unrest that shook the city last year.
“Although you’re afraid inside your heart, you need to speak out,” said Chang, 29, a clerk and protester dressed in black with a helmet respirator and goggles in her backpack.
A call to gather around the Legislative Council was scrapped due to a heavy presence of riot police.
Many shops, bank branches and office buildings closed early. Dozens of people were seen rounded up by riot police and made to sit on a sidewalk.
Protests have returned to the streets of Chinese-ruled Hong Kong after Beijing proposed national security laws aimed at tackling secession, subversion and terrorist activities. The planned laws could see Chinese intelligence agencies set up bases in the semi-autonomous city.
The move triggered the first big 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 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.
Police said they had arrested at least 16 people on Wednesday, aged 14-40, for alleged crimes including possession of offensive weapons, possession of tools for illegal use and dangerous driving.
Protesters in a downtown shopping mall chanted “Liberate Hong Kong! Revolution of our times” and “Hong Kong independence, the only way out”, but dispersed as lookouts shouted a warning to “go shopping!” at the sight of police vans outside.
One protester was seen with a placard reading “one country, two systems is a lie”, referring to the political system put in place at Britain’s 1997 handover of the city to China that is meant to guarantee Hong Kong’s freedoms until at least 2047.
“I’m scared … if you don’t come out today, you’ll never be able to come out. This is legislation that directly affects us,” said Ryan Tsang, a hotel manager.
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 laws will be tightly focused.