Riot police detained and arrested dozens of people in the busy shopping area of Causeway Bay and Central, the city’s main global business hub, during scattered and seemingly spontaneous protests over the law, which critics say threatens basic political freedoms and civil liberties. Multiple protesters could be seen wrestled to the ground by police, and pepper spray and pellets were fired into crowds gathered in densely populated areas. Arrests were also made in Mong Kok, in Kowloon, police said.
“It’s like a de facto curfew now,” former lawmaker and pro-democracy activist Nathan Law told Hong Kong public broadcaster RTHK
in the wake of the arrests. “I think the government has to understand why people are really angry,” he added.
Earlier, protests aimed at stopping lawmakers from debating a separate, but also controversial national anthem bill
had been foiled by a huge police presence outside the legislature. Lawmakers have begun the second reading debate of that law, which will make it a crime punishable by up to three years in prison “to insult” China’s national anthem, “March of the Volunteers,” and are expected to hold a final vote on June 4.
In a statement early Wednesday evening, police said around 300 people had been arrested across the city “on suspicion of participating in an unauthorized assembly” as well as “possession of offensive weapons” and “possession of tools for illegal use.”
Police said people “occupied the nearby roads and blocked traffic,” disrupting “social peace.” They also released a photo showing dozens of people seated inside a police kettle, most of whom appear to be young and wearing regular clothes, rather than the heavy protest gear seen in previous unrest.
Compared to last year, when lunchtime protests were a semi-regular sight ahead of the coronavirus outbreak, often involving white collar business workers, police demonstrated far less tolerance for any obstruction of roads or other minor disruption. Police were seen detaining people for shouting protest slogans and displaying banners, and one police liaison officer told a crowd in Central through a loudspeaker: “After eating lunch, go back to your normal life and don’t stand here anymore.”