HONG KONG — The police fired tear gas in a busy Hong Kong commercial district on Sunday as hundreds gathered to protest China’s push to tighten its control over the semiautonomous region with security legislation.
Many residents see the move by China’s ruling Communist Party to impose national security laws in Hong Kong as a major, perhaps irreparable blow to the city’s relative autonomy. Many in Hong Kong have long feared that the Communist Party could use such sweeping legislation to strangle the civil liberties — such as freedom of assembly and press — that distinguish the city from the mainland.
“Hong Kong independence is the only way out,” the protesters chanted as they poured onto a busy thoroughfare in the Causeway Bay shopping area. They sang songs and hoisted signs as they pressed forward, ignoring the warnings of dozens of police officers in riot gear to disperse.
The protest on Sunday was the biggest the territory had seen in several months since the coronavirus epidemic and rules on social distancing kept many antigovernment protesters at home.
Tam Tak-chi, an activist from People’s Power, a pro-democracy group, held what he described as an open-air public health lecture at a street stall, distributing masks and social-distancing advice while also criticizing the city’s riot police officers and Beijing’s tightening grip.
“With the national security law, the people cannot be healthy,” Mr. Tam said. “Stand with Hong Kong. Fight for freedom.” The police moved quickly to shut it down, and Mr. Tam was seen being taken away.
As the crowd thickened, trams sat immobilized on the rails, with passengers poking their phones out to film the activity. One protester jammed police cones under the tires of a minibus to prevent it from moving.
“I came out today to protest against the evil law China will impose on Hong Kong,” Billy Lai, a 34-year-old social worker, said. “If everyone of us can do a little bit more, I hope we can bring changes to the society.”
Many attempted to march west toward another district but were turned back when the police fired tear gas. The police said in a statement that its officers had to use the weapon to disperse crowds who had blocked traffic and thrown umbrellas, water bottles and other objects at officers.
In the days following the announcement by Beijing on Thursday that it planned to enact new security laws affecting Hong Kong, the city had remained relatively quiet. Many protesters, while describing outrage and grief, also expressed a sense of paralysis. Faced with a direct challenge from the Communist Party, rather than its proxies in the Hong Kong government, their faith in the power of protest had dimmed, they said.
The movement is also struggling to recover from the fallout of the coronavirus pandemic. Even before the local authorities enacted bans on large public gatherings, many Hong Kong residents chose to stay home and avoid crowds. Since January, any attempts to revive the protests of last year had been sparsely attended and quickly stifled by the police.
Even as the threat of the virus has waned, some in the pro-democracy camp have said they preferred to express their discontent in other, potentially safer ways, such as boycotting businesses seen as sympathetic to Beijing.
The march on Sunday was planned before the national security announcement; it was originally intended to oppose a separate bill, in Hong Kong’s legislature, to criminalize disrespect of the Chinese national anthem. Antigovernment groups had seen that proposal as yet another indication of the mainland’s encroachment on Hong Kong.
“In the eyes of the Chinese Communist Party one-party dictatorship, advocacy for democracy is seen to be subversion,” said Lee Cheuk-yan, who led a small protest earlier Sunday in front of China’s Liaison Office, which represents the mainland government’s interests in the territory. “Of course this is a threat to the people of Hong Kong and the freedom we have enjoyed.”
The march Sunday was smaller than the huge rallies that filled Hong Kong streets last year to protest a bill that would have allowed extraditions to mainland China. The Hong Kong government eventually abandoned that law, but protests have continued over issues such as the use of force by the police and limits on democracy in Hong Kong.
This year, the police have taken a much more assertive approach to the protests, trying to stop mass gatherings before they occur. They have also fined groups of protesters for violating social-distancing regulations put in place to limit the spread of the coronavirus.
The Hong Kong government previously tried to introduce security laws in 2003, but was stopped after a mass protest march. The city’s government has since avoided reintroducing such legislation.
Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s Beijing-backed leader, said the local impasse made it necessary to have Beijing implement such laws. But to many in Hong Kong, the intervention by the central government has dealt a heavy blow to the autonomy the city was promised when it returned to China from British control in 1997.
Ezra Cheung and Elaine Yu contributed reporting.
Source: NY times