Police swarm Hong Kong ahead of flashpoint anthem debate

Hong Kong (AFP) –


Hong Kong police ramped up security around the city's legislature on Wednesday ahead of a debate over a law that would ban insulting China's national anthem, the latest measure activists say is chipping away at free speech in the finance hub.

The debate comes days after China announced separate plans to impose a sweeping national security law on Hong Kong following last year's huge and often violent pro-democracy rallies.

That move has prompted Washington to warn that Hong Kong might lose its status as a global financial centre if the city's freedoms and vaunted judicial independence are swept aside by Beijing.

Under a deal agreed with Britain before the city's return to China, Hong Kong is supposed to be guaranteed certain liberties until 2047 that are denied to those on the mainland.

The legislature -- known as LegCo -- was trashed by protesters early on during last year's protests as authorities tried to fast-track an eventually scrapped bill allowing extraditions to the authoritarian mainland.

Police were taking few chances ahead of Wednesday's debate.

Heavy water-filled barriers ringed the government complex while riot police squads flooded nearby roads and subway stations, conducting regular stop and searches, AFP reporters said.

A police source told AFP that "thousands" of officers had been placed on standby ready to respond to any attempts to block traffic outside the legislature or breach the building.

Some unions and student groups made calls for a general strike for Wednesday but it was unclear whether crowds would materialise.

- Anthem booed -

Hong Kong's government is pushing a bill that will criminalise insulting communist China's "March of the Volunteers" anthem, making it punishable by up to three years in jail.

Beijing has been infuriated by Hong Kongers -- especially football fans -- booing the national anthem.

The city's pro-democracy opposition say the bill is a fresh attempt to criminalise dissent.

Fights have broken out between rival lawmakers over the legislation.

Pro-democracy politicians are prevented from holding a majority in the legislature, only some of whose members are elected by popular vote.

But for months they have used filibustering within a legislative committee to stop the bill reaching the floor for a vote.

The city's pro-Beijing faction seized control of the committee earlier this month -- a move opponents said was unconstitutional.

Wednesday's session is the bill's second reading. A third reading is likely to come next week after which it will become law if approved.

The protests have been fuelled by years of rising fears that Beijing is prematurely eroding Hong Kong's cherished freedoms.

Beijing portrays the protests as a foreign-backed plot to destabilise the motherland.

Protesters say their rallies are the only way to voice opposition in a city without fully free elections.

In response to last year's often violent protests, Beijing announced plans last week to enact legislation banning secession, subversion, terrorism and foreign interference.

That law, which has yet to be published in full, will bypass the legislature and be inked in Beijing.

The move has alarmed investors and some western governments but Beijing and city leader Carrie Lam insist it will not stifle freedoms.