A police officer fired pepper spray at a group of people in a Hong Kong shopping mall on Wednesday amid renewed pro-democracy and anti-government protests, as the city's government said it would plow ahead with a controversial law banning 'insults' to the Chinese national anthem.
The undercover officer, who identified himself before spraying a journalist and a protester with an umbrella, was at a gathering of multiple small groups of people at New Town Plaza mall in the New Territories town of Shatin.
Protesters had gathered in mock celebration of the 63rd birthday of chief executive Carrie Lam, and were gathered in small groups to avoid being targeted under social distancing rules linked to the coronavirus pandemic.
Hong Kong's government has banned groups of eight people or more from gathering in a public place, under epidemic prevention rules.
The maskless officer brandished a canister of pepper spray after wrestling a man to the ground, government broadcaster RTHK reported, in a warning to nearby protesters to back off.
Police said in a statement via Facebook that the man being subdued was a "rioter" who had smashed up items in a nearby store.
Protesters gathered in other malls across the city, with some chanting rude slogans about Lam and others stepping on photographs of her with her face replaced by a skull.
Tensions have risen in Hong Kong in recent days as protesters continue to demand fully democratic elections and greater official accountability, as pro-democracy lawmakers were forced to end a long filibuster that had been preventing the tabling of the National Anthem law in the Legislative Council (LegCo).
Secretary for constitutional and mainland affairs Erick Tsang on Tuesday indicated the government would resume a second reading of the highly controversial National Anthem Bill in LegCo on May 27.
"The national anthem is the symbol and sign of the country," a Hong Kong government spokesman said in a statement.
The bill has been mandated by a decision of China's National People's Congress (NPC) standing committee to add it to a list of mandatory laws to be passed by Hong Kong.
The spokesman said the purpose of the law was to "preserve the dignity of the national anthem and promote respect for the national anthem."
The protest movement escalated sharply last June, after Lam's administration tried to push another highly unpopular piece of legislation through LegCo that would have allowed the extradition of alleged criminal suspects to face trial in mainland China.
Lam has since formally withdrawn the hated amendments to the city's extradition laws, but has stopped short of meeting protesters' demands for an amnesty for arrestees, an independent public inquiry into police violence and abuse of power, an end to the description of protesters as "rioters," and fully democratic elections.
Police violence criticized
The ruling Chinese Communist Party has been at pains to frame the year-old anti-extradition and pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong as "separatist," saying that protesters want independence for the city, although the majority say they are fighting to prevent the loss of their existing freedoms.
Frontline protesters, eyewitnesses, journalists, and human rights groups have repeatedly said that the majority of violence during the protests has originated with the Hong Kong police, who have been widely criticized for the excessive use of tear gas, water cannon, and pepper spray, as well as both non-lethal and live ammunition weapons, on unarmed protesters.
Medical personnel and rights groups have also slammed the handcuffing and arrests of voluntary medical staff, including nurses and doctors, during the siege of the Polytechnic University by riot police in November 2019.
Reported by RFA's Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.