Hong Kong deployed riot police around the Legislative Council on Wednesday as activists called for protests against a bill to criminalize disrespect of the Chinese anthem, amid soaring tensions over perceived threats to the city’s freedoms.
Protests have returned to the streets of Chinese-ruled Hong Kong after Beijing proposed national security laws last week that sparked global fears that the freedoms helping it prosperas an interface between China and the West could be eroded.
Hundreds of riot police took up positions and authorities erected a two-meter (6 feet) wall made of plastic barriers filled with water around the Legislative Council, extending across a park up to Victoria Harbour.
In other parts of the city, protesters used bins and debris to block roads, while activists issued calls online for demonstrations in various locations later in the day.
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“It’s for the long-term stability of Hong Kong and China, it won’t affect the freedom of assembly and speech and it won’t affect the city’s status as a financial center,” Hong Kong Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung told reporters. “It would provide a stable environment for businesses.”
Hong Kong’s most prominent tycoon Li Ka-shing said in a statement security laws were within every nation’s right, but Hong Kong had the “mission-critical task” to maintain trust domestically and globally in “one country, two systems”.
Hong Kong media reported Beijing had expanded the scope of the draft security legislation to include organizations as well as individuals.
The law was being revised to cover not just behavior or acts that endanger national security, but also activities, local broadcaster RTHK and the South China Morning Post reported.
US President Donald Trump on Tuesday said the United States this week would announce a strong response to the planned security legislation for Hong Kong.
The US-China Business Council (USCBC) said urged “all leaders to take those steps necessary to de-escalate tensions, promote economic recovery and the rule of law, and preserve the ‘one country, two systems’ principle.”
Asian shares slipped over rising tensions between the United States and China. Hong Kong shares led declines with the Hang Seng falling 0.46 percent, though it kept a bit of distance from a two-month low touched on Monday.
Protesters and pro-democracy politicians say Hong Kong’s National Anthem Bill, which aims to govern the use and playing of the Chinese national anthem, represents another sign of what they see as accelerating interference from Beijing.
The bill carries penalties of up to three years jail and/or fines of up to HK$50,000 ($6,450) for those who insult the anthem. It also orders that primary and secondary school students in Hong Kong be taught to sing the “March of the Volunteers”, along with its history and etiquette.
“As long as citizens don’t disrespect the anthem law, there’s no need to worry, I hope people can discuss the bill rationally,” said Cheung.
The anthem bill is set for a second reading on Wednesday and is expected to become law next month.