US president Donald Trump has warned China he is preparing to take action over its efforts to impose national security laws on Hong Kong, as police flooded the city and made their first arrests during planned demonstrations on Wednesday.
Asked if he was going to impose sanctions on China over its actions in Hong Kong, Trump told reporters at the White House: “We’re doing something now. I think you’ll find it very interesting. But I won’t be talking about it today.” He indicated that details would be released before the end of the week.
Trump did not say if the plan involved sanctions or changes to the city’s special trading status but press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said it was “hard to see how Hong Kong can remain a financial hub if China takes over”.
“He’s displeased with China’s efforts,” she said.
On Wednesday Hong Kong media reported Beijing had expanded the scope of the draft legislation to include banning not just behaviour or acts that endanger national security, but also activities.
“Mainland lawyers who have handled national security cases in the past say this change could bring not just individuals, but also organisations under the scope of the law,” RTHK said.
Thousands of Hong Kong police were out in force ahead of planned mass protests against a separate controversial bill, which would criminalise ridicule of China’s national anthem.
On social media, protest organisers urged people to “be water” and keep moving, but acknowledged it would be difficult to stop the anthem debate at the Legislative Council (LegCo) without high risk of arrest. “But you can at least make a statement,” said one post.
Crowds led by former legislator Leung Kwok Hung gathered at Admiralty station, near the LegCo building, where they were told by police to leave or they’d be prosecuted. Protesters shouted back “be Hong Kongers”.
They shouted: “human rights are higher than the regime”, “five demands, not one less”, and demanded the government withdrawn the national anthem bill and national security legislation.
Elsewhere, protesters gathered in Hysan Place shopping centre shouting slogans, including some calling for independence – a demand previously on the fringe but now growing in popularity.
Earlier, police in riot gear stopped and searched mainly young people outside Hong Kong’s numerous MTR train stations, local media reported. Roads around the Legislative Council building had been blocked off since at least Tuesday, and pedestrian walkways were cordoned off to all except those with work passes.
Police said they had arrested several young people and teenagers for possession of weapons, including petrol bombs. On Facebook police said protesters had thrown barriers onto rail lines, driven slowly to hold up traffic, and set fire to rubbish bins.
Under the proposed anthem law, a person would commit an offence if they took various actions with “intent to insult” the anthem, such as changing lyrics or music or singing in a “disrespectful way”. It would carry financial penalties and jail time of up to three years.
Several days have been set aside for debate, and the vote itself is scheduled for 4 June – the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre and another source of controversy given Hong Kong’s vigil this year won’t be allowed.
Protests had been planned since last week, but took on new urgency with Beijing’s announcement of national security laws, and thousands took to the streets on Sunday, where they were met with a heavy police response.
On Tuesday, Chinese president Xi Jinping said the military must increase its preparations for armed confrontations.
“It is necessary to step up preparations for armed combat, to flexibly carry out actual combat military training, and to improve our military’s ability to perform military missions,” he told military officers on the sidelines of the country’s annual “Two Sessions” political gathering.
The comments, which did not reference Hong Kong directly, came just a day after the commander of the People’s Liberation Army garrison stationed in Hong Kong said his troops – estimated to number around 10,000 – stood ready to “safeguard” Chinese sovereignty in the city and support national security laws.
Many Hongkongers, business groups and western nations fear that the proposed Chinese legislation would bring about a clampdown on the semi-autonomous territory. One concern is a provision allowing Chinese security agents to operate in Hong Kong, with fears it could spark a crackdown on those voicing dissent against Beijing.
The national security legislation would ban secession, subversion, terrorism and foreign interference after months of massive, often-violent pro-democracy protests last year. The precise wording of the security law has yet to be revealed but China’s rubber-stamp parliament previewed initial details last week.
It is expected to approve a draft of the law on Thursday and analysts say it could be implemented in the summer.