HONG KONG -- Thousands of people in Hong Kong defied police warnings and coronavirus-era bans on social gatherings to rally Sunday against Beijing's latest attempt to crack down on dissent.
Spurred by the Chinese government's push to pass a national security law for the semiautonomous city, demonstrators gathered in the afternoon outside the Sogo department store in Causeway Bay.
They chanted slogans such as "Fight for freedom. Stand with Hong Kong" and "Liberate Hong Kong. Revolution of our time." Some set up roadblocks to paralyze traffic in the area.
Riot police fired rounds of tear gas and deployed water cannons to disperse the crowd. Pro-democracy activist Tam Tak-chi was arrested on charges of organizing an unauthorized assembly, and at least 180 people had been detained as of 9:30 p.m. as police officers conducted stop-and-search operations across Hong Kong island.
As of 6 p.m., a total of six people had been hospitalized from protest-related injuries, with a 51-year-old woman in critical condition.
"The protests that we have seen since last summer have started again," said Toru Kurata, a politics professor and Hong Kong specialist at Tokyo's Rikkyo University, to the Nikkei Asian Review on Sunday night.
The new coronavirus temporary halted the demonstrations against the central government in Beijing for a few months. But Kurata foresees a full revival triggered by China's recent move to implement national security legislation that bypasses the Hong Kong legislature.
"This is a desperate act of resistance as the legislative process will simply proceed in Beijing, and there's nothing the protesters can do to stop it," the Japanese scholar said.
"What I am worried about is the clash becoming more violent," he said, in light of the police response to Sunday's unauthorized event.
The planned legislation would allow Beijing to further tighten its political grip on the city. The bill is expected to pass in China's annual parliamentary session on May 28 and implemented in the coming months.
The new proposal targets activities such as "splitting the country" and "subverting state power," as well as terrorism and foreign interference in Hong Kong. Critics and pro-democracy lawmakers said it will mark the end of "one country, two systems," the framework underpinning Hong Kong's autonomy and democratic freedoms when the former British colony returned to Chinese rule in 1997.
The move has drawn international condemnation. Nearly 200 political figures around the globe, including members of the U.S. Congress, signed a joint statement on Saturday to decry the proposed legislation, saying it is a "comprehensive assault on the city's autonomy, rule of law and fundamental freedoms."
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi justified the move to impose the legislation at a news conference Sunday in Beijing. He said violence has escalated with the calls for independence, acts of terrorism, and intervention by external forces in Hong Kong affairs.
"This has caused serious harm to China's national security and threatened the 'one country, two systems' principle," Wang told reporters at the National People's Congress. "It is imperative to establish and improve the legal system and enforce a mechanism for safeguarding national security in the Hong Kong special administrative region."
He added that the new bill "will not affect the high degree of autonomy of Hong Kong, the rights and freedoms of Hong Kong residents, or the legitimate rights and interests of foreign investors in Hong Kong."
Pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong, who was at the demonstration, said he is "very likely" to be one of the targets of the law but would continue to fight by lobbying for support from other countries.
A protester who gave his surname as Ng told the Nikkei Asian Review that the planned law might mean the end of protests in the city.
"Before that day, we must make our voices heard in whatever ways we can," he said.
Backing for the protesters also came from an unexpected direction. Taiwan's China-friendly Kuomintang opposition party said Sunday night that it "has always supported Hong Kong in maintaining democracy and freedom different from the mainland's," while indicating "concern from the bottom of the heart" on the social unrest created by the large-scale resistance.
The former arch-rival of the Chinese Communist Party also stressed its "resolute opposition" to Beijing's aim of imposing "one country, two systems" on Taiwan, which the Kuomintang said should not be lumped in with Hong Kong.
"Even the Kuomintang has to be critical of China on the Hong Kong issue," Rikkyo University's Kurata pointed out. "This reflects the shift in public opinion in Taiwan and is also an indication of the serious international environment China is in right now."
Additional reporting by CK Tan in Shanghai and Kenji Kawase in Hong Kong.