HONG KONG -- Police fired pepper spray and pepper balls at protesters in Hong Kong's Central business district on Wednesday, as hundreds of people rallied against controversial legislation that would punish behavior disrespectful of China's national anthem, amid heightening concerns over diminishing freedoms in the city.
In scenes reminiscent of last year's anti-government protests, demonstrators began gathering at several locations during the lunch hour. Thousands assembled in the city's main business and commercial districts, chanting "Free Hong Kong," "Hong Kong independence, the only way out," and other slogans.
"I don't know how many more times I can come out," an office worker in Central said. "I only know if we don't fight back now, the Hong Kong we have come to know will be gone."
About 300 people were arrested on charges of unlawful assembly, the police said. Separately, 16 people were arrested on suspicion of possession of an offensive weapon, possession of instruments fit for unlawful purposes, and dangerous driving.
Political tensions in the former British colony have intensified in recent days after Beijing announced plans to enact a national security law for Hong Kong during its annual parliamentary session, bypassing the semi-autonomous city's lawmaking body.
Thousands of people took part in an unauthorized protest against the security law on Sunday in the first large-scale demonstration since the coronavirus outbreak began. Police fired tear gas and water cannons to disperse the crowds, and arrested more than 200 people on charges of illegal assembly.
Several Hong Kong tycoons have expressed their support for the security legislation, which is expected to be passed on Thursday.
Li Ka-shing, the founder of one of Asia's largest conglomerates, was quoted in pro-China news outlets on Wednesday saying the passage of the proposed law could "relax the central government's worry against Hong Kong and bring into play positive affect to long-term, stable development."
He said the local government "has an inescapable responsibility to consolidate Hong Kongers' confidence on 'one country, two systems' and strengthen trust by the international community."
Meanwhile, debate over the anthem bill in Hong Kong's Legislative Council ended on Wednesday without a clear resolution, following several adjournment motions tabled by pro-democracy lawmakers. The debate is expected to continue on Thursday and a vote is expected over the next week.
Under the anthem bill, people who "intentionally insult" China's national anthem, "March of the Volunteers," could face fines of up to 50,000 Hong Kong dollars ($6,450) and three years in prison.
The controversy dates back to 2015 when fans began booing the anthem frequently at local soccer matches following the city's Occupy Central protests.
Earlier on Wednesday, protesters had called for early-morning action to paralyze traffic and block roads near the LegCo building as the legislature prepared to debate the anthem bill. But in the face of a heavy police presence across the city, streets were quiet and traffic was largely undisrupted.
Police also conducted citywide stop-and-search operations during the morning commute.
Hundreds of officers were deployed to guard the LegCo complex ahead of the meeting. Main roads surrounding the building have been fenced off by 2-meter-tall water-filled barriers since Tuesday.
The protesters' strategy on Wednesday recalled events a year ago, when tens of thousands of protesters occupied roads outside the legislature building to halt the second reading of a since-withdrawn extradition bill, preventing pro-government lawmakers from entering the building.
The selection of members to Hong Kong's legislature is designed in a way that favors pro-establishment groups. Pro-democracy advocates have demanded political reforms to allow all members of LegCo, as well as the city's leader, to be directly elected by the public.
Meanwhile, in Li's comments with the two major pro-Beijing news outlets in the territory -- Ta Kung Pao and Wen Wei Po, both of which are under the same management -- he also stated that "any country has the rights and responsibilities over their own national security issues, and everyone should not have to over-interpret" the legislation.
The 91-year-old magnate is now formally retired, but his words carry much weight in Hong Kong, where he is called "Superman" for his business acumen and sociopolitical influence.
Other real estate tycoons also have been speaking up for the bill.
As a member of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, or CPPCC, the younger Li told pro-Beijing media that he "expects the draft to stabilize the situation in Hong Kong and regain normal operations of social economic activities."
Raymond Kwok Ping-luen, chairman of Sun Hung Kai Properties, said: "Concluding a national security law for Hong Kong will be effective in creating a stable and orderly investment, business and social environment."
Kwok, the head of the world's largest real estate company, as measured by net profit last year, added that the proposed bill would "ensure benefits to the masses, while solidifying Hong Kong's position as an international financial center."
Peter Lee Ka-kit, chairman of Henderson Land Development, said the law is "purely for the long-term peace and stability for Hong Kong." The second-generation scion of the real estate-based empire added that the territory's economic position will be difficult to preserve "if we lose peace and stability."
The comments by Victor Li, Kwok and Lee were confirmed by their companies' spokespeople.
Kwok and Lee also are CPPCC members participating in the sessions being held this week in Beijing. Their companies are tightly knitted into the Chinese political realm and have substantial business interests in mainland China.
Separately, President Donald Trump said on Tuesday that the U.S. would announce "a strong response" to the planned security legislation for Hong Kong by the end of the week.
Washington has threatened to remove preferential trade and investment treatments for Hong Kong in view of Beijing's tightening oversight, triggering concerns over the city's status as a global financial hub.
White House spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany earlier said in a press briefing that Trump found it "hard to see how Hong Kong can remain a financial hub if China takes over."