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Hong Kong riot police arrested about 300 people and fired pepper pellets in the central business district Wednesday, in a sign of an increasingly hard-line response to protests over Beijing’s tightening grip on the city.
Chaotic skirmishes broke out throughout the city as police took a zero-tolerance approach to demonstrators protesting Beijing’s controversial new national security law, and a bill that would outlaw disrespect of the Chinese national anthem.
Pepper ball rounds were fired into densely crowded areas of the central business district, where protesters were chanting pro-democracy slogans, sending passersby running for cover.
Footage on social media showed fierce skirmishes as police in riot gear pepper-sprayed crowds, including groups of journalists, while other images appeared to show protesters bleeding after being wrestled to the ground.
Police carried out intensive searches of suspected protesters, including groups of schoolgirls, ferrying away large groups of arrested people in buses. Police said about 300 people were arrested for illegal assembly in various locations around the city, after being warned to disperse and causing “serious obstruction to traffic.”
Protesters told VICE News police were taking a more aggressive approach to the demonstrations, in a sign of the authorities’ growing impatience with the renewed protests, which were triggered by Beijing’s announcement last week of plans to impose tough national security laws on the city.
“The police have taken a much harder line than they have before,” said one protester who was involved in the demonstrations Wednesday.
“Anti-riot police are everywhere. Cars are stopped by roadblocks for searching. The scale of [stop and search] has never been seen before.”
The protester, a student who did not want to be named for fear of legal repercussions, said many of those detained by police appeared to be uniformed school students in their early teens.
“It’s a special feature of today that they’re arresting so many students in uniforms,” he said.
Another protester, 17-year-old Kitty Fung, told the South China Morning Post that protesters were frustrated by the heavy-handed police response.
“It seems it is no longer possible for us to do anything, unlike before,” she said. “I feel like we have given a lot but have achieved nothing.”
Prominent pro-democracy activist Nathan Law, a former lawmaker, told Hong Kong public broadcaster RTHK that the new hard-line approach felt “like a de facto curfew.”
"I think the government has to understand why people are really angry," he said.
Coronavirus had taken the steam out of the city’s protest movement, which roiled the city in the latter half of 2019. But the movement has been reignited by Beijing’s announcement last week of plans to impose wide-reaching national security laws on Hong Kong that would prohibit secession, sedition, and subversion.
Beijing says the law is needed to combat the regular protests that have shaken the territory. But opponents fear the move will effectively spell the end for the city’s political freedoms and civil liberties, guaranteed under the “one country, two systems” policy, and leave critics of the government at the mercy of Chinese secret police.
Protesters have also been angered by a push to pass a controversial law that would make insulting China’s national anthem, March of the Volunteers, punishable by a fine of up to HK$50,000 and three years behind bars. The anthem has been frequently booed at sporting events in Hong Kong in recent years as anti-Chinese sentiment has grown in the city.
On Wednesday, police thwarted plans by protesters to encircle the city’s legislature, where the bill was being debated, deploying a huge police presence and barriers in the area.
At least 180 people were arrested during a large rally in the city Sunday, and senior Hong Kong officials said the unrest only highlights the need for the new security laws.
Cover: Riot police guard detain a protester as a second reading of a controversial national anthem law takes place in Central district, Hong Kong, Wednesday, May 27, 2020 (AP Photo/Kin Cheung)