HONG KONG — Police fired tear gas and water cannons at thousands of protesters in Hong Kong on Sunday at a march against Beijing’s plan to directly impose national security laws on the city.
Crowds made the bustling shopping district of Causeway Bay, shouting "Hong Kong independence, the only way out," and other slogans.
“China wants to control us. We just want to be ourselves and live with our freedoms, so that’s why we are here,” one protester who said her last name Yu, 37, told NBC News. She did not want her full name to be published to protect her privacy.
“It’s not too late,” she said, although she admitted she did not think the protest would “change anything because the Chinese government is being unreasonable.”
But she added that they wanted “to show everyone in the world that we are not giving up, we are not afraid of the Chinese government.”
Although they had planned to march for about two miles, the demonstrators only made it a short distance before they met a police line. After the tear gas was fired, small groups broke off, followed by officers.
The protest is the first since China's National People's Congress — the country's annual grand political convention where major policy is passed by the ruling Communist Party — announced on Thursday it would deliberate a bill on "establishing and improving the legal system and enforcement mechanisms" for Hong Kong in order to "safeguard national security."
The bill would allow China to sidestep the territory's own legislative body to crack down on activity Beijing considers subversive and represented a major turning point.
It is widely expected to pass ending the unique model aimed at guaranteeing freedoms not granted on the mainland that has been in place since the territory was handed to China after British colonial rule ended in 1997.
A free press and independent judiciary are among the thing currently allowed in the semi-autonomous city.
China has dismissed other countries' complaints about the proposed legislation as "meddling," saying the proposed laws will not harm Hong Kong autonomy or foreign investors.
Sunday's march, the largest since COVID-19 lockdowns began, was initially organized against a national anthem bill but the proposed national security laws sparked calls for more people to take to the streets.
Police said in a Facebook post at least 180 people had been arrested in Sunday’s protests.
In a separate statement, they said that “rioters smashed and broke traffic lights,” and had “blocked multiple roads” with trash cans and “other miscellaneous objects.”
A spokesman for Hong Kong's government also condemned the protests.
"As the epidemic eases, the rioters, once again, on the pretext of opposing the legislation on national security, took part in unlawful assemblies and engaged in violent and illegal acts," he said.
"These violent acts, which abounded in the second half of last year, pose a serious threat to public safety and are outrageous," he added.
Demonstrators nonetheless insisted they would continue to protest again the new law.
One who identified herself by her last name, Lang, said: “There is nothing else we can do really. We have to do something that is helpful instead of just giving up.”
She did not want her full name to be published to protect her privacy.
Lang also admitted that it was “unlikely” that the Chinese government would listen to them, she said: “We can only hope for change.”