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Hong Kong erupted in chaos again Sunday as thousands of protesters marched through the city to protest Beijing’s plans to impose tough new national security laws, which many fear will spell an end to the city’s freedoms.
On Monday, the pro-Beijing government’s top security official denounced the protesters as terrorists, claiming the unrest only underlined the need for the controversial new laws outlawing treason, secession and sedition.
Police fired tear gas and water cannons at demonstrators who gathered despite coronavirus social distancing rules limiting gatherings to eight people. Many protesters carried umbrellas, symbols of the city’s protest movement, while others chanted “Free Hong Kong,” and “Hong Kong independence is the only way out.”
At least 180 people were arrested, Hong Kong police said, most for illegal assembly or misconduct, while 10 people were admitted to hospital.
Among the injured was a 41-year-old solicitor who was reportedly beaten by a group of black-clad protesters after they got into an altercation over a roadblock that protesters had set up in the central district of Causeway Bay. The Hong Kong Law Society and the city’s Justice Secretary, Teresa Cheng, strongly condemned the assault.
The rally, which was by far the city’s largest since the coronavirus outbreak, was motivated by public outrage over Beijing’s announcement last week it plans to impose a law banning "treason, secession, sedition and subversion" in Hong Kong. Opponents of the proposed law believe it will be used to crack down on government critics, silence free speech, and effectively spell the end of “one country, two systems.”
But the show of mass opposition has done nothing to dissuade the city’s pro-Beijing government from changing course. Secretary for Security John Lee said Monday that Sunday’s clashes only highlighted "the need and urgency of the decision to be deliberated” by the National People’s congress, Hong Kong’s rubber stamp parliament.
"Terrorism is growing in the city and activities which harm national security, such as 'Hong Kong independence', become more rampant," Lee said in a statement.
"In just a few months, Hong Kong has changed from one of the safest cities in the world to a city shrouded in the shadow of violence," he said, adding that police had made a number of seizures of firearms and explosives in recent months.
Ray Chan, a pro-democracy lawmaker in Hong Kong's Legislative Council, shot back at the smear on social media. “Call us terrorists, whatever you want, after the Wuhan Virus outbreak, China has no more credibility in the world,” he wrote.
Simon Cheng Man-kit, the UK-based head of overseas Hong Kong activist group the Umbrella Union, told VICE News that the threat of the “draconian” security laws had rekindled Hong Kongers’ “passion and determination” to fight for their freedom.
“It is the rulers, not the people, who cause the terrorism,” he said. “More protests will come.”
Hong Kong's mini-constitution, the Basic Law, states that it has to implement national security laws that prohibit treason, sedition, and acts of subversion against Beijing. But Hong Kong’s government has never passed the laws, due to widespread public opposition and fears it would be used to smother civil liberties in the city. A previous attempt to pass them, in 2003, resulted in mass street protests that led to the bill being shelved.
Now Beijing, impatient with the city’s protest movement, has said it intends to break the gridlock by imposing the laws itself. While both Beijing and the Hong Kong government have signalled their intent to allow this as soon as possible, the Hong Kong Bar Association, a professional organization for barristers in the city, flagged up a number of legal concerns about the proposal Monday, saying it believed Beijing did not have the power to impose the laws on the city as it intended.
Protests are expected to kick off again on Wednesday, when Hong Kong’s legislature is due to give a second reading of a bill that would make it a crime to denigrate China’s national anthem.
Cover: Hong Kong riot police fire tear gas as hundreds of protesters march along a downtown street during a pro-democracy protest against Beijing's national security legislation in Hong Kong, Sunday, May 24, 2020. (AP Photo/Vincent Yu)