HONG KONG - Hong Kong riot police fired pepper pellets in downtown Hong Kong as hundreds gathered to demonstrate in the city's central shopping hubs at lunchtime on Wednesday (May 27) in opposition to Beijing's proposed national security law and the national anthem Bill.
At around 1pm, some protesters in Central occupied parts of Pedder Street, disrupting traffic in the area. This prompted the police to fire pepper pellets to disperse the crowd. Over in Causeway Bay, about 100 people were stopped and searched.
Police were also deployed to Mong Kok and Tsim Sha Tsui, following calls for people to gather there to protest.
Heavy police presence and searches in the morning had dented protesters' initial plans to block roads and disrupt traffic.
Some drivers had tried to disrupt the traffic at the cross-harbour tunnel at about 8.30am by driving slowly but officers intercepted those vehicles concerned and diverted traffic.
Police officers cleared roadblocks in several areas after a group of “thugs” sought to disrupt traffic with nails and other debris, police said in a statement posted on Facebook.
It warned commuters to check traffic conditions before heading out. “The police warn the mob to stop illegal activities immediately, otherwise they will be arrested,” it said.
Police said at least 360 people have been arrested in Causeway Bay, Central and Mong Kok for unauthorised assembly, among other things. Some were arrested for possessing offensive weapons including petrol bombs, screwdrivers and protest gear.
Wednesday's protests and planned strike is the latest indication of the strength of the anti-government movement that led to unrest in the city last year and is now gathering against a proposed national security law, and a controversial national anthem Bill due to be read a second time.
Netizens called for protests on Wednesday morning and at night, while more than 30 trade unions spanning across aviation, hotel and beauty industries on Tuesday called for a strike against the move.
They said high-ranking officials, who one by one have pledged support for the proposed law, drafted by Beijing last week, were backing it to protect their own interests.
Under the new law, it would become the norm for people to report each other, they said.
While schools are due to reopen, the Secondary School Students' Action Platform, a group linked to political party Demosisto, said students would skip class to protest against the national anthem Bill, which would bar any disrespect of China's national anthem.
Classes for Secondary 3 to Secondary 5 students will resume Wednesday. Younger pupils in Primary 4 to Secondary 2 will go back to school on June 8, and Kindergarten 3 to Primary 3 on June 15.
Hong Kong schools have been shut since the Chinese New Year holidays in January.
In anticipation of chaos and disruption, local media said some 3,000 officers will be deployed to manage the situation.
Authorities erected a wall made of 2m tall, white and blue plastic barriers filled with water around the Legislative Council (Legco) building, extending across a nearby park up to Victoria Harbour.
Around midnight, riot police roamed the park, with squads stationed outside Legco and the neighbouring Central Government Offices building. Several police vans were parked on nearby roads, Reuters reported.
Local media HK01 reported that about 20 of the pro-government lawmakers stayed overnight in the Legco to prevent the recurrence of June 12, the second reading of the now scrapped extradition Bill, where protesters surrounded the building and no one could get in or out.
On Tuesday, the police issued a statement to warn the public of planned disruptions, including the blockage of main carriageways in various districts at rush hour in the morning to paralyse traffic, and action to surround the Legco where the national anthem Bill will be read again.
"Police will not tolerate any illegal actions that breach social peace. Resolute enforcement actions will be taken. Offenders will be arrested and any vehicles that cause serious obstruction will be swiftly towed away," warned the police.
Beijing's resolution on the national security law, to be passed on Thursday, does not amend the Basic Law - Hong Kong's mini Constitution - but critics say it goes further, allowing Chinese security agencies to be set up in the territory to help with enforcement.
Beijing expanded the scope of the draft legislation to include organisations as well as individuals, local media reported on Wednesday. It would cover not just behaviour or acts that endanger national security, but also activities, local broadcaster RTHK and the South China Morning Post reported.
In Washington, President Donald Trump on Tuesday said the United States would announce before the end of the week a strong response to the planned security legislation for Hong Kong.
When asked at a news briefing if the response would include sanctions, he said: “No, it’s something you’re going to be hearing about... before the end of the week, very powerfully I think.”
Under Article 23 of the Basic Law, the Hong Kong government is authorised to legislate national security laws; "however, it does not preclude the Central Authorities from legislating at a national level for national security", the Department of Justice said on Monday.
Hong Kong tycoon Li Ka Shing on Wednesday defended the legislation in his first comment on the recent political developments.
"It is within each and every nation's sovereign right to address its national security concerns," the 91-year-old billionaire said in a text message sent by his representatives, Bloomberg reported. "We probably need not over-interpret it. Hopefully the proposed new law can allay concerns the central government has in Hong Kong and give rise to a positive outlook from there."
The proposal has created an uproar in the city, with thousands of protesters gathering at Causeway Bay on Sunday to show their disapproval, despite a ban on public gatherings of more than eight.
Riot police fired volleys of tear gas and rounds of pepper bullets to disperse the crowd, making at least 180 arrests. Some people were admitted to hospital.
Besides blocking roads with debris, barricades and traffic cones, some protesters also smashed the windows of what they believed to be pro-government shops in Wan Chai.