HONG KONG - Hong Kong deployed riot police around the Legislative Council on Wednesday as activists called for protests against a bill to criminalise disrespect of the Chinese anthem, amid soaring tensions over perceived threats to the city's freedoms.
Protests have returned to the streets of Chinese-ruled Hong Kong after Beijing proposed national security laws last week that sparked global fears that the freedoms helping it prosper as an interface between China and the West could be eroded.
Hundreds of riot police took up positions and authorities erected a two-metre (6 feet) wall made of plastic barriers filled with water around the Legislative Council, extending across a park up to Victoria Harbour.
In other parts of the city, protesters used bins and debris to block roads, while activists issued calls online for demonstrations in various locations later in the day.
"Although you're afraid inside your heart, you need to speak out," said Chang, 29, a clerk and protester dressed in black with a helmet respirator and goggles in her backpack.
Police said they had arrested at least 16 people, aged 14-40, involved in crimes including possession of offensive weapons, possession of tools for illegal use and dangerous driving.
Protesters in a downtown shopping mall chanted "Liberate Hong Kong! Revolution of our times" and "Hong Kong independence, the only way out", but dispersed as lookouts shouted a warning to "go shopping!" at the sight of police vans outside.
One protester was seen with a placard reading "one country, two systems is a lie", referring to the political system put in place at Britain's 1997 handover of the city to China that is meant to guarantee Hong Kong's freedoms until at least 2047.
"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," said Ryan Tsang, a hotel manager.
Beijing last week unveiled national security legislation plans for Hong Kong that aims to tackle secession, subversion and terrorist activities.
It could see Chinese intelligence agencies set up bases in the semi-autonomous city.
The move triggered the first big street unrest in Hong Kong in months on Sunday, with police firing tear gas and water cannon to disperse protesters, evoking memories of violent anti-government protests that paralysed parts of the city last year.
Chinese authorities and the Beijing-backed government in Hong Kong say there is no threat to the city's high degree of autonomy and the laws will be tightly focused.
"It's for the long term stability of Hong Kong and China, it won't affect the freedom of assembly and speech and it won't affect the city's status as a financial centre," Hong Kong Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung told reporters. "It would provide a stable environment for businesses."
Hong Kong's most prominent tycoon Li Ka-shing said in a statement security laws were within every nation's right, but Hong Kong had the "mission-critical task" to maintain trust domestically and globally in "one country, two systems".
Hong Kong media reported Beijing had expanded the scope of the draft security legislation to include organisations as well as individuals.
The law was being revised to cover not just behaviour or acts that endanger national security, but also activities, local broadcaster RTHK and the South China Morning Post reported.
US President Donald Trump on Tuesday said the United States this week would announce a strong response to the planned security legislation for Hong Kong.
The US-China Business Council (USCBC) said urged "all leaders to take those steps necessary to de-escalate tensions, promote economic recovery and the rule of law, and preserve the 'one country, two systems' principle."
Asian shares slipped over rising tensions between the United States and China. Hong Kong shares led declines with the Hang Seng .HSI falling 0.46 per cent, though it kept a bit of distance from a two-month low touched on Monday.
Protesters and pro-democracy politicians say Hong Kong's National Anthem Bill, which aims to govern the use and playing of the Chinese national anthem, represents another sign of what they see as accelerating interference from Beijing.
The bill carries penalties of up to three years jail and/or fines of up to HK$50,000 ($6,450) for those who insult the anthem. It also orders that primary and secondary school students in Hong Kong be taught to sing the "March of the Volunteers", along with its history and etiquette.
"As long as citizens don't disrespect the anthem law, there's no need to worry, I hope people can discuss the bill rationally," said Cheung.
The anthem bill is set for a second reading on Wednesday and is expected to become law next month.