Hong Kong national anthem bill spurs protests

Police surrounded the city's legislature with water-filled barriers and conducted widespread stop-and-search operations in a bid to deter mass gatherings

Photo: AFP Police on high alert in Hong Kong

Hong Kong police fired pepper balls and made arrests in the city's central business district as protests sprung up in multiple districts in response to the likely passing of a bill that criminalises "insulting" China’s national anthem. Swarms of riot police were on high alert across the territory ahead of the second reading of the controversial bill, expected to take place Wednesday afternoon. 

If the bill is passed as expected, "mocking or misusing" the song titled "March of the Volunteers" could result in a maximum prison sentence of three years and fines up to $6,000. 

Police spoke of offences by "rioters" that began as early as 5:30am local time (0930 GMT), including blocking roads and train tracks with trash and nails, possession of offensive weapons and arson. 

At least 17 protesters had been arrested by mid-day, including two students aged 14 and 15 charged with "possession of instruments fit for unlawful purposes" for possessing helmets and respirators.

The online protest community ramped up plans to initiate dysfunction in the city Wednesday, dpa has learned, ahead of the Legislative Council’s second reading of the national anthem bill.

Calls for protesters to surround the legislative council building were stymied by heavy police presence throughout Admiralty, the city’s government district.  Protesters instead gathered on streets and in shopping centres in nearby Causeway Bay district. The familiar protest chant "Hong Kong add oil!" and the new protest chant "Hong Kong people build a nation!" resounded in the atrium of upscale Hysan Place shopping center. 

Riot police formed a cordon line then rounded up dozens of people outside of Hysan place after warning the crowd that they were participating in an "illegal assembly." It was unclear if the force intended to arrest them en masse. 

Addressing the press ahead of the legislative council meeting, Hong Kong’s second most senior politician, Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung, however, has vowed to pass the national anthem law as soon as possible.

"As Hong Kongers, we have a moral responsibility to respect the national anthem," Cheung, Hong Kong's de facto deputy leader, told reporters before the debate began, brushing aside concerns that the anthem law could be weaponised against free speech.  

"The national anthem is just 46 seconds long … people in every country on the earth would stand solemnly when the national anthem is played," he said. "Then why couldn't our country's anthem be treated the same way?" 

The Hong Kong government earlier in the week welcomed China’s proposal to pass national security laws on the territory’s behalf, despite fierce opposition from Hong Kong's pro-democracy politicians.  China’s proposal to bypass Hong Kong’s internal legislature to enact national security laws targeting "treason, sedition, separatism, and foreign interference" is widely seen as an affront on the territory’s autonomy. 

Mass protests began in June last year over a separate bill seen as a threat to Hong Kong’s autonomy. Under the threat of COVID-19, protests waned in 2020 but have resumed in response to the highly controversial national anthem and national security bills.

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