HONG KONG (AP) -- 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.
Nearly 300 people were arrested across Hong Kong for unauthorized assembly, according to Facebook posts by the Hong Kong police force.
Separately, at least 17 people, mostly teenagers, were arrested for possessing items that could be used for unlawful purposes, such as gasoline bombs or screwdrivers, or for driving slowly and blocking traffic, police said.
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.
Tse said the bill would not affect human rights or force people to love the country or support any political power. “The purpose of this is to protect the dignity of a country,” he said.
Pro-democracy lawmaker Charles Mok disagreed, saying the legislation would not help gain the respect of people and was an excuse to control freedom, speech and ideas of people.
“We oppose the second reading of the national anthem bill, not because we don’t respect the national anthem. The national anthem is a symbol of the country's dignity. If it wants to be respected, then let this government first respect the rights and freedoms of its people first," Mok said.
The bill was proposed in January 2019 after spectators from Hong Kong jeered at the anthem during high-profile international soccer matches in 2015. Last year, FIFA fined the Hong Kong Football Association after fans booed the national anthem at a World Cup qualifying game.
Hong Kong was returned to China from British colonial rule in 1997 under a “one country, two systems” framework that promised freedoms not found on the mainland. Anti-China sentiment has risen as residents see Beijing moving to erode those rights.
Mass protests in 2014, known as the Umbrella Revolution, followed the Chinese government’s decision to allow direct election of the city leader only after it screened candidates. In the end, the plan for direct elections was dropped.
Legislation proposed in Hong Kong last year that would have allowed Hong Kong residents to be sent to mainland China for trials set off months of demonstrations that at times involved clashes between protesters and police. The legislation was withdrawn.
China's ceremonial parliament now meeting in Beijing has moved to enact a national security law for Hong Kong aimed at forbidding secessionist and subversive activity, as well as foreign interference and terrorism. Hong Kong's own government has been unable to pass such legislation due to opposition in the city, and Beijing advanced the law itself after the protests last year.
Asked about possible U.S. retaliation over the security legislation, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said in Beijing that China would take necessary steps to fight back against what he called “erroneous foreign interference in Hong Kong’s affairs.”