National anthem bill reignites Hong Kong unrest


Shanghai | Hong Kong was braced for another wave of violent clashes between protesters and police on Wednesday night as the city's legislators prepared to pass a controversial law which will make it a criminal offence to disrespect the Chinese national anthem.

With the city already on edge as China prepares to impose new security laws on Friday, the second parliamentary reading of separate national anthem legislation was the latest focus for Hong Kong's protest movement.$width_764/t_resize_width/e_sharpen:25%2Cq_42%2Cf_auto/3fac0f284669c1992f87f2192fa102f32982416b
Riot police use pepper spray to disperse protesters in Hong Kong's Central district on Wednesday. Getty

But despite rising fears about the erosion of civil liberties under Chinese rule, the number of protesters was smaller than last year when tens of thousands of demonstrators overwhelmed police and blocked major street and tunnels.

Authorities blanketed parts of the city with riot police, who fired pepper spray to disperse protesters and arrested 180 people on suspicion of participating in illegal assemblies. Social media images posted by local journalists showed images of young students in uniform being lined up against walls or handcuffed before being taken away.

Riot police surrounded the Legislative Council building, where the city's parliament meets, on Wednesday morning in anticipation of a repeat of the mass demonstrations last year when protesters broke into the chamber. Instead, multiple protests broke out in different locations around the city.

The number of riot police patrolling Hong Kong's streets well outnumbered protesters on Wednesday afternoon. "It's like a police state," one officer worker observed at the scenes of riot police carrying batons and shields patrolling through the city's financial district where they were sometimes booed by lunchtime crowds.

Police fired pepper spray at protests in Central, the city's financial district on Hong Kong Island, according to local media. Protesters were also arrested at other demonstrations which broke out in the shopping district of Causeway Bay and Mong Kong. Police said “rioters” were blocking roads with rubbish and nails to stop traffic.

The bill scheduled to be voted on would criminalise mocking or booing China's national anthem, known as "March of the Volunteers".

It includes provision for sentences of up to three years in jail and fines of up to HK$50,000 ($9705) for people who “insult” the anthem. It also said primary and secondary school students should be taught to sing the anthem, which had previously been booed at football matches and other events in Hong Kong.

It was already scheduled to be debated before Beijing last week announced it would propose national security laws expected to be used against protesters and critics of the Chinese government. China's National People's Congress is expected to pass that law on Friday.

The Australian government is believed to be preparing another formal response once the law is passed in Beijing. Australia joined Canada and Britain in condemning the move on Saturday,

That proposal triggered the first mass protests in Hong Kong on the weekend since the coronavirus outbreak prevented large public gatherings from January.

US president Donald Trump said on Tuesday the United States would announce "strong" measures in response to the proposed security laws by the end of the week. Washington had earlier warned it would end Hong Kong's trade privileges which were subject to the city retaining its autonomy from China.

The latest round of unrest in response to the national anthem bill is expected to be overshadowed by wider demonstrations against the security laws, which critics say is the biggest threat to Hong Kong's promised autonomy since the 1997 handover.

So far, there has been no repeat of last year's marches, when as many as 2 million people took to the streets demanding chief executive Carrie Lam's resignation and the shelving of proposed extradition laws.

Social distancing rules introduced in response to the coronavirus outbreak have been extended to June 4, which means gatherings of 10 or more people are technically illegal.

Leading pro-democracy figures and governments around the world denounced Beijing's move last week to breach commitments it gave Britain under an agreement to guarantee Hong Kong's autonomy until 2047. It bypasses the city's legislature to impose new rules, which would allow it to crack down on protests and on critics of the Chinese government.