Hong Kong police fired tear gas, pepper spray and water cannons as thousands of protesters rallied against proposed security measures aimed at tightening Beijing’s grip on the semi-autonomous territory.
Protesters amassed in some of Hong Kong’s busiest retail districts Sunday afternoon, just days after China’s parliament began working on a new anti-sedition and security laws, which have drawn criticism from pro-democracy activists. The protest was unauthorized and in defiance of social distancing rules.
Not long after demonstrators rallied in the city’s Causeway Bay and Wan Chai, riot police began turning tear gas and water cannons on the crowd. Media reports citing video of demonstrators say at one point, some protesters began throwing objects at police. Police accounts say demonstrators started fires and destroyed traffic lights.
” A large number of community facilities were damaged, multiple traffic lights were destroyed, road rail fences removed, and a large number of drainage covers and bricks on the road were crowded,” Hong Kong police said in a statement.
At least 180 people were arrested, according to police, for unlawful and illegal assembly and misconduct in public places.
Though smaller demonstrations have broken out in recent weeks, Sunday’s was the largest since protests over a now-suspended extradition law roiled the city last year. Those protests culminated in a standoff at a major university and sit-in that led to flight cancellations at the Hong Kong International Airport.
Sunday’s rally came just days after Beijing proposed security measures that “could make any secessionist activity seen as critical and subversive illegal, effectively ending Hong Kong’s limited autonomy,” NPR’s Emily Feng reports.
Reuters reports that the rally was initially planned over a bill criminalizing disrespect of China’s national anthem.
On Sunday, Trump’s National Security Adviser, Robert O’Brien said the proposed security measures could jeopardize Hong Kong’s future as a financial hub — due in part to its special trade status with the U.S. — and lead to sanctions.
“It looks like, with this national security law, they’re going to basically take over Hong Kong,” O’Brien told NBC’s Meet the Press. “And if they do, Secretary [of State Mike] Pompeo will likely be unable to certify that Hong Kong maintains a high degree of autonomy and if that happens there will be sanctions that will be imposed on Hong Kong and China.”
Legislation passed last year requires the state department to annually certify that Hong Kong is “upholding the rule of law and protecting rights” and “sufficiently autonomous” for the city to maintain its special status under U.S. law.
Hong Kong’s semi-autonomy from China was established in 1997 as part of the city’s handover from the United Kingdom.