HONG KONG — Simmering tensions over national security laws proposed by Beijing spilled over in Hong Kong on Wednesday, with police firing pepper pellets into crowds of protesters and arresting more than 300 people.
Riot police flooded central Hong Kong as people of all ages took to the streets to protest the territory's legislators preparing to debate another bill, one that would make it illegal to insult or abuse the Chinese national anthem.
Pro-democracy protesters and politicians say the bill, which carries penalties of up to three years in jail and fines of up to $50,000 Hong Kong dollars ($6,450), is yet another sign of increasing interference from Beijing.
Protesters in a downtown shopping mall chanted “Liberate Hong Kong! Revolution of our times” and “Hong Kong independence, the only way out," Reuters reported, as some concealed their identities with open umbrellas in scenes reminiscent of the unrest that swept the city last year.
“I’m scared ... if you don’t come out today, you’ll never be able to come out. This is legislation that directly affects us,” Ryan Tsang, a hotel manager, told Reuters.
Hong Kong Police said they have arrested more than 300 people on a number of charges, including possession of weapons and illegal assembly in the city center, Mong Kok, the Causeway Bay area and Wan Chai area. They said they encountered "sporadic acts of violence" on the streets, including arson.
Wednesday's protest comes after thousands took to the streets on Sunday, with police firing tear gas and water cannons to disperse crowds protesting proposed legislation unveiled last weekthat would tackle secession, subversion and terrorist activities in Hong Kong.
Some fear the laws would side-step Hong Kong's own legislature and directly impose measures to stifle protest and free speech in Hong Kong. The former British colony, which was handed back to China in 1997, has been governed by a unique "one country, two systems" model aimed at guaranteeing freedoms not granted in mainland China.
The United States along with several other countries has expressed concern about the legislation, with President Donald Trump saying Tuesday he was working on a strong response to China’s planned new legislation for Hong Kong.
Meanwhile, Chinese authorities and the Beijing-backed government in Hong Kong have insisted the proposed legislation does not threaten the city’s high degree of autonomy.
On Tuesday, Hong Kong's leader Carrie Lam dismissed fears about the new legislation and called on the territory's citizens to back it up.
"We are a very free society, so for the time being people have the freedom to say whatever they want to say," she said.
She also appeared to signal that once the draft law had passed, demonstrations like those that swept Hong Kong last year could be deemed illegal.
"If there is objection, we would deal with illegal opposition acts in accordance with law and will not back down," Lam added.
Justin Solomon reported from Hong Kong, and Yuliya Talmazan reported from London.
Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.