HONG KONG police fired pepper pellets to disperse protesters in the heart of the global financial centre on Wednesday and arrested some 300 people as national security legislation proposed by Beijing revived anti-government demonstrations.
As tensions soared, riot police were deployed around Hong Kong's Legislative Council, deterring protesters who had planned to gather there as a bill was due to be debated that would criminalise disrespect of the Chinese national anthem.
Angry 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 faces beneath open umbrellas in scenes reminiscent of the unrest that shook Hong Kong last year.
Many shops, banks and offices closed early. Police were seen rounding up dozens of people, making them sit on a sidewalk and then searching them.
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 big street unrest in Hong Kong in months on Sunday, with police firing tear gas and water cannon to disperse protesters.
The US, Australia, Britain, Canada and others have expressed concern about the legislation, widely seen as a possible turning point for 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. "It would provide a stable environment for businesses."
US President Donald Trump, already at odds with Beijing over trade and the novel coronavirus pandemic, said on Tuesday the US would this week announce a strong response to the planned legislation.
China responded by saying it would take necessary countermeasures to any foreign interference.
As the protests in the financial district died down, hundreds of people gathered in the working class Mong Kok district on the Kowloon peninsula, where protests flared repeatedly last year.
Police, acting much more quickly than before to nip protests in the bud, said they had arrested about 240 people in three districts, most for illegal assembly.
Hong Kong's most prominent tycoon Li Ka-shing said in a statement security laws were within every nation's right, but Hong Kong had the "mission-critical task" to maintain trust in "one country, two systems".
Hong Kong media reported that Beijing aimed to expand the scope of the legislation to include organisations as well as individuals.
Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen pledged humanitarian relief for any Hong Kong people fleeing to the self-ruled island while Japan said it was "strongly concerned" about the situation.
The US-China Business Council urged "all leaders to take those steps necessary to de-escalate tensions, promote economic recovery and the rule of law, and preserve the 'one country, two systems' principle".
Protesters and pro-democracy politicians say Hong Kong's National Anthem Bill, which aims to govern the use and playing of the Chinese anthem, represents another sign of what they see as accelerating interference from Beijing. The anthem bill is set for a second reading on Wednesday and is expected to become law next month. REUTERS