HONG KONG — The protesters wanted to surround the city’s government offices, but a smothering police presence forced them to abandon that plan. They tried to block traffic in the financial district at lunchtime, but the police pelted the crowd with rubber bullets. They gathered in malls to chant protest slogans, but were later rounded up and herded on to police buses.
In all, the Hong Kong police arrested more than 360 people on Wednesday, including students in their teens and early 20s, most on suspicion of unauthorized assembly.
Antigovernment protests have roiled this semiautonomous Chinese city for months, but the anger remains palpable. Protests swelled again after Beijing announced last week that it would impose national security laws that democracy advocates fear would target dissent. Grievances over the use of force by the police continue to burn. And a law that would criminalize disrespect of the national anthem has further stirred fear over threats to Hong Kong’s cherished freedoms of speech and expression.
“I think maybe this is the last chance we have to fight back,” said Sheldon Liu, a 20-year-old college student who joined protesters outside a mall in the Causeway Bay neighborhood. “Of course I hope these laws will not pass, but I feel it is impossible to stop.”
On Thursday, China’s Legislature was expected to approve a plan to impose laws on Hong Kong that could be used to suppress subversion, secession, terrorism and seemingly any acts that the authorities in Beijing consider threats to national security.
China’s push in Hong Kong has raised concerns among democratic governments. In Washington, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Wednesday he no longer viewed Hong Kong as semiautonomous, a possible precursor to the termination of the territory’s special trading status with the United States. President Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan said that she was directing her government to develop a plan to help people who are fleeing Hong Kong.
Hong Kong’s government has sought to defend the security laws. John Lee, the secretary for security, said on Wednesday that violence during recent protests showed the need for the legislation and voiced his support for the police.
This year, the police appear more determined to quash the protests and more equipped to do so, calling into question the future of the antigovernment movement that has relied heavily on marches and outdoor rallies to drum up support. Wednesday’s protests followed a march on Sunday that drew thousands of people on to the streets in defiance of social-distancing orders in the city’s largest demonstration in months. Police officers fired tear gas, rubber bullets and a water cannon. Nearly 200 people were arrested.
On full display on Wednesday was the police force’s more assertive approach. They erected temporary fencing and tall, water-filled barriers to vastly expand the security perimeter around Hong Kong’s government and legislative complex. Riot police officers were stationed throughout the area, checking identification documents and stopping and searching people they deemed potential protesters.
Protesters could not get anywhere close to the complex, in stark contrast to last year’s demonstrations in which activists were able to besiege the local legislature and eventually force the government to abandon an unpopular extradition bill.
Increasingly, the police appear to be no longer seeking simply to disperse protesters, but to prevent them from gathering. If that fails, officers now also work to corral the protesters so they can arrest dozens at a time.
A pro-democracy union for hotel employees said police were searching guest rooms in several hotels near the legislative building for gear used in protests. Demonstrators stopped wearing all black to avoid being identified as protesters by the police, but that meant they found it difficult to locate one another on the streets. The police also arrested 10 teenagers for the possession of objects such as screwdrivers, gasoline bombs, respirators and a pair of scissors.
The protest on Wednesday was timed to coincide with when the city’s lawmakers were scheduled to debate legislation that would threaten a fine of up to about $6,500 and three years in prison for anyone found to be misusing or insulting the Chinese national anthem.
Rosa Ning, a 65-year-old retiree, made it as far as a footbridge several blocks away from the legislative complex before she was blocked by police cordons.
She said she had been saddened to see how pervasive the Chinese national anthem was becoming in the city, noting that in recent years it had begun to be played at the start of Cantonese opera performances that she enjoyed attending. Audience members were required to rise from their seats, she said.
“I stood up against my will, but in my heart, I was singing ‘Glory to Hong Kong,’” Ms. Ning said, referring to a popular protest song.
The anthem bill and the national security legislation made her concerned for Hong Kong’s youth, she said.
“The future will be difficult if you just want to come out and express your views,” she said. “Whether you are sent to prison in Hong Kong or China, we wouldn’t know.”
At midday, groups gathered to sing and chant at a mall in the Causeway Bay neighborhood. Police officers stopped some as they took to the streets, but a few thousand more briefly marched down main roads on Hong Kong Island.
They were met by the police, who sent them scattering down side streets.
In the commercial district of Mong Kok, protesters filled a major thoroughfare for another spontaneous march, but officers in riot gear stopped dozens of people, including schoolgirls in uniform. The police said they arrested more than 60 people there after protesters “rushed out to the roads” and placed garbage on lanes to obstruct traffic. Chanting demonstrators lingered in the district until nightfall, and some set fire to a few traffic cones.
With protesters kept at bay, lawmakers began debating the national anthem bill Wednesday afternoon. For many, the bill strikes at the heart of their concerns about the shrinking space for dissent.
Some sports fans in Hong Kong in recent years have taken to turning their backs, booing and even raising their middle fingers when the Chinese anthem is played at sporting events. The law would criminalize such behavior.
Lawmakers are scheduled to vote on the anthem law next Thursday. Because pro-government parties control the legislature, the bill is expected to pass.
Elaine Yu and Vivian Wang contributed reporting.