HONG KONG (AP) — Hong Kong police fired tear gas and a water cannon at protesters in a popular shopping district on Sunday, as thousands took to the streets to march against China's proposed tough national security legislation for the city.
Pro-democracy supporters in Hong Kong have sharply criticized the proposal last week to enact a national security law that would ban secessionist and subversive activity, as well as foreign interference, in the semi-autonomous Chinese territory. Critics say it goes against the "one country, two systems" framework that promises the city freedoms not found in mainland China.
Crowds of demonstrators dressed in black gathered Sunday afternoon in Hong Kong's Causeway Bay district to protest the proposed legislation. Protesters chanted slogans including "Stand with Hong Kong," "Liberate Hong Kong" and "Revolution of our times."
The protest was a continuation of a monthslong pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong that began last year and has at times descended into violence between police and protesters.
Police raised blue flags, warning protesters to disperse, before firing multiple rounds of tear gas. They later fired a water cannon at the demonstrators.
At least 120 people were arrested, mostly on charges of unlawful assembly, police said in a Facebook post.
They also said in a separate post that protesters threw bricks and splashed unidentified liquid at officers, injuring at least four members of the police's media liaison team. They warned that such behavior is against the law and that police would pursue the matter.
Earlier in the afternoon, prominent activist Tam Tak-chi was arrested during the protest for what police said was unauthorized assembly. Tam said he was giving a "health talk" and was exempt from social-distancing measures that prohibit gatherings of more than eight people.
The bill that triggered Sunday's rally was submitted at China's national legislative session on Friday and is expected to be passed on May 28. It would bypass Hong Kong's legislature and allow the city's government to set up mainland agencies in the city that would make it possible for Chinese agents to arbitrarily arrest people for activities deemed to be pro-democracy.
Speaking on the sidelines of the annual session of China's ceremonial parliament in Beijing, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said Sunday that Hong Kong affairs were an internal matter for China, and that "no external interference will be tolerated."
"Excessive unlawful foreign meddling in Hong Kong affairs has placed China's national security in serious jeopardy," Wang said, adding that the proposed legislation "does not affect the high degree of autonomy in Hong Kong."
"It does not affect the rights and freedoms enjoyed by Hong Kong residents. And it does not affect the legitimate rights and interests of foreign investors in Hong Kong," he said. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has called the proposal "a death knell for the high degree of autonomy" that Beijing promised the former British colony when it was returned to China in 1997.
Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong prior to its handover to China, lamented what he called "a new Chinese dictatorship."
"I think the Hong Kong people have been betrayed by China, which has proved once again that you can't trust it further than you can throw it," Patten said in an interview with The Times of London.
Patten is leading a coalition of at least 204 international lawmakers and policymakers who are decrying the proposed legislation. In a statement, the coalition called it a "flagrant breach" of the Sino-British Joint Declaration, a 1984 treaty that promised Hong Kong a high degree of autonomy even after the handover of Hong Kong to China in 1997.
Bernard Chan, a top-level Hong Kong politician and delegate to the National People's Congress in Beijing, defended the national security legislation pushed by China, saying it was written into Hong Kong's Basic Law — the city's mini-constitution — but never enacted.
Chan expressed concern that Hong Kong would inevitably face economic hardship given trade frictions between the U.S. and China.
"I think we are definitely the collateral damage being dragged into this thing. But then, I don't think there's any alternatives," he said. "But with or without this law, honestly, the U.S. and China are always going to be continuing this loggerhead for quite some time to come," Chan said. "China will remain as a threat to the U.S. in terms of the ... world economic dominance."