Protesters mass in Hong Kong as anthem law is debated

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Riot police form a line as they check pedestrians gathered in the Central district of Hong Kong, Wednesday, May 27, 2020. Hong Kong police massed outside the legislature complex Wednesday, ahead of debate on a bill that would criminalize abuse of the Chinese national anthem in the semi-autonomous city. (AP Photo/Vincent Yu)

HONG KONG – Thousands of protesters shouted pro-democracy slogans and insults at police in Hong Kong on Wednesday as lawmakers debated a bill criminalizing abuse of the Chinese national anthem in the semi-autonomous city.

Police massed outside the legislative building ahead of the session and warned protesters that if they did not disperse, they could be prosecuted.

In the Central business district, police raised flags warning protesters to disperse before they shot pepper balls at the crowd and searched several people. More than 50 people in the Causeway Bay shopping district were rounded up and made to sit outside a shopping mall, while riot police with pepper spray patrolled and warned journalists to stop filming.

In the Mong Kok district in Kowloon, some protesters set cardboard boxes and plastic on fire as demonstrations carried on into the night. The blaze was put out by firefighters.

Across Hong Kong, 360 people were arrested on charges including unauthorized assembly, possession of items that could be used for unlawful purposes — such as gasoline bombs — to driving slowly and blocking traffic, according to Facebook posts by the Hong Kong police force.

The bill would make it illegal to insult or abuse the Chinese national anthem, “March of the Volunteers” in semi-autonomous Hong Kong. Those guilty of the offense would face up to three years in prison and a fine of 50,000 Hong Kong dollars ($6,450).

Opponents of the bill say it is a blow to freedom of expression in the city, while Beijing officials say it will foster a patriotic spirit and socialist values.

“Western democracies all have laws to protect their national flags, national anthems and emblems. Any insulting acts toward these symbols would also be criminal,” pro-Beijing lawmaker Tony Tse said in the legislative debate.