Hong Kong police have arrested at least 53 people after scuffles erupted during a relatively peaceful protest against China’s planned national security legislation.
Armed riot police were present as hundreds of protesters moved through the Kowloon district, in what started as a “silent protest” against the planned law.
However, chanting and slogans were shouted towards police and scuffles broke out, prompting police to use pepper spray to subdue parts of the crowd.
Hong Kong Police said on Facebook that 53 people had been arrested and charged with unlawful assembly, adding that some protesters had tried to blockade roads in the area.
According to Hong Kong Watch, a British watchdog, almost 9000 protesters have been arrested in the past year, with 62 convicted.
The proposed national security law has raised concerns among Hong Kong democracy activists and some foreign governments that Beijing is further eroding the extensive autonomy promised when Britain handed the territory back to China in 1997.
“The governments want to shut us up and to kick us out,” protester Roy Chan said.
“We must stand up and strike down all those people who deprive Hong Kong people’s freedom.”
Sunday’s rally came a day after Hong Kong police refused permission for an annual march usually held on July 1 to mark the 1997 handover, citing a ban on large gatherings amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Beijing determined to enact law
China has said the security law will target only a small group of troublemakers as it tackles separatism, subversion, terrorism and foreign interference in Hong Kong.
Under the proposed law, the central government in Beijing would be allowed to set up a national security office in Hong Kong to collect and analyse intelligence and deal with criminal cases related to national security.
Few details of the bill have been released, but it appears that Beijing will have ultimate power over government appointments, further reducing the relative independence it promised to Hong Kong.
China’s National People’s Congress Standing Committee, an arm of the Communist Party-run legislature, reviewed a draft of the bill on Sunday.
State media reported that politicians had overwhelmingly supported the draft and it was expected to pass on Tuesday.
Critics have said Hong Kong’s legal statutes already cover such issues, and that Beijing is determined to use the law to pursue political opponents.
In response to the legislation’s passage, Britain, the US, Australia and Canada recently scolded China, as they said it would threaten freedom and breach the document that sets out Hong Kong’s partial autonomy, the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration.
“China’s decision to impose the new national security law on Hong Kong lies in direct conflict with its international obligations under the principles of the legally binding, UN-registered Sino-British Joint Declaration,” they said.
“We are also extremely concerned that this action will exacerbate the existing deep divisions in Hong Kong society.”
China has long demanded such a law be enacted for Hong Kong, but efforts were shelved in the face of massive protests in 2003.
Beijing appeared to have lost its patience in the face of 2019’s widespread and often violent anti-government demonstrations in Hong Kong, moving to circumvent the city’s own legislative council and enact the law at the national level on what critics said were weak legal grounds.