A police officer points his pepper ball gun at a student reporter in Central. Photo: Editorial board of the Hang Seng University of Hong Kong Students’ Union

Riot control police in Hong Kong fired pepper-ball rounds and arrested hundreds as they cracked down on protests against a bill being heard in the legislature banning insults to China’s national anthem on Wednesday.

Hundreds of protesters had gathered in several districts on Hong Kong Island and Kowloon to oppose the national anthem bill, which was being discussed in the Legislative Council on Wednesday.

More than 3,500 police officers were deployed to intercept people on the streets and check their ID cards and bags, while two water cannon vehicles were sent to guard the government headquarters in Admiralty and the central government’s Liaison Office in Sai Wan.

Several tow trucks were standing by to remove any vehicles that blocked roads. 

The latest unrest comes only days after China announced separate plans to impose a national security law on Hong Kong after large and at times violent pro-democracy demonstrations were held last year.

On Wednesday morning, some members of two pro-democracy groups – the League of Social Democrats and the Hong Kong Association for Democracy and People’s Livelihood – rallied outside the Admiralty Centre to protest against the national anthem bill and the national security law, but were immediately dispersed by police. 

Because it was difficult to get close to the Legislative Council building near Tamar Park in Admiralty, protesters gathered in Central and Causeway Bay instead. 

In Central, some office workers joined the protests during their lunch hour. Hundreds of people gathered on Pedder Street and chanted slogans, including “Disband the police immediately” and “Five demands not one less.”

Some protesters threw rubbish bins onto roads. The protesters were dispersed by police and warned they were taking part in an “illegal assembly.” Police intercepted a group of people near the IFC mall and World-Wide House and took some of them away in a coach.

Police fired pepper-ball rounds at protesters who were gathering near Wyndham Street, which left some people coughing due to the irritant.

A photo taken by a member of the editorial board of the Hang Seng University of Hong Kong Students’ Union showed a police officer pointing his pepper-ball gun at a student reporter in Central. 

Some protesters assembled inside the Hysan Place mall in Causeway Bay during the lunch hour and then moved to Times Square. Two young people dressed in black were detained by the police, which increased the level of tension between protesters and police.

On Russell Street, a police officer used pepper spray on a Hong Kong man because he was walking too slowly. 

A police officer uses pepper spray on a Hong Kong man in Causeway Bay. Photo: Editorial board of the Hang Seng University of Hong Kong Students’ Union

About 100 people, most of them young, were corralled onto a pavement outside Hysan Place in Causeway Bay and ordered to sit on the floor by police. The officers then checked their ID cards and some were allowed to leave, but others were taken away.

Some protesters had occupied Hennessy Road and walked towards Wan Chai and Admiralty. Riot police subdued several people near the Lockhart Road Market and arrested dozens of others near the intersection of Queen’s Road East and Justice Drive.

At 1pm, protesters started gathering at the intersection of Nathan Road and Argyle Street in Mong Kok, planning to walk towards the clock tower in Tsim Sha Tsui. Police were seen intercepting at least 50 people on the streets in the area and some were taken away. 

At 2:45pm, protesters began their march, which was immediately categorized as an “illegal assembly” by police. They chanted slogans including “Hong Kong independence.” At 3pm, police intercepted 50 people and took dozens away.

‘Martial law’

“It’s like a de facto curfew now,” Nathan Law, a prominent pro-democracy advocate told AFP. “I think the government has to understand why people are really angry.”

“You can see there are police every corner, it’s like martial law in force,” added a woman, who gave her nickname Bean, after she was searched. 

In a statement, police said they “respect the right of residents to express their views peacefully, but it must be carried out legally.”

Public gatherings of more than eight people are banned under emergency anti-coronavirus measures and requests by civil society groups to hold protests have been denied for months by authorities, citing both the pandemic and last year’s unrest.

Under the “one country, two systems” model agreed before the city’s return from Britain to China, Hong Kong is supposed to be guaranteed certain liberties until 2047 that are denied to those on the mainland.

By 6pm on Wednesday, police had arrested more than 300 people in different districts for alleged possession of offensive weapons, possession of an instrument fit for an unlawful purpose, illegal assembly and unauthorized assembly.

Protesters rallied on the streets as Legco, Hong Kong’s ruling body, started to discuss a new law that would criminalize any “disrespect” for China’s national anthem. Those found guilty face a fine of up to HK$50,000 (US$6,449.79), or three years in prison.