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Police surround Hong Kong legislature before anthem debate

Police massed outside Hong Kong's legislature complex Wednesday before lawmakers debate a bill that would criminalize abuse of the Chinese national anthem in the semi-autonomous city.

Protest calls went out Tuesday night, urging people to surround the legislature buildings and block roads in an attempt to derail the proceedings, but they didn't materialize.

The police reported small incidents of obstruction of traffic and the city’s subways at certain stations. Seven people, most of them teenagers, were arrested for possession of items fit for unlawful purposes, such as petrol bombs, helmets, gas masks and scissors and screwdrivers.

Riot police check IDs of people near the Legislative Council building in Hong Kong, Wednesday, May 27, 2020. Hong Kong's legislature begins debate on a bill that would criminalize insulting or abusing the Chinese national anthem. Opponents see the proposal as part of growing central government infringement on freedoms in the semi-autonomous territory. (AP PhotoKin Cheung)

The bill makes it illegal to insult or abuse the “March of the Volunteers.” Those found guilty could face up to three years in prison and a maximum fine of HK$50,000 (US$6,450).

The anthem bill was first proposed in January 2019, after Hong Kong spectators jeered at the anthem during high-profile, international soccer matches in 2015.

Anti-China sentiment has been on the rise in Hong Kong since 2014 protests, known as the Umbrella Revolution, that stemmed from the Chinese government’s decision to allow direct election of the city leader only after it screened candidates. In the end, the plan for direct elections was dropped.

Riot police stand guard in the Central, business district of Hong Kong, Wednesday, May 27, 2020. Hong Kong's legislature begins debate on a bill that would criminalize insulting or abusing the Chinese national anthem. Opponents see the proposal as part of growing central government infringement on freedoms in the semi-autonomous territory. (AP PhotoKin Cheung)

The move by Beijing was seen as curtailing democracy in Hong Kong, a former British colony that was handed back to China is 1997 under a “one country, two systems” framework that promises the city freedoms not found on the mainland.

The debate over the bill also comes as Beijing moves to enact a national security law for Hong Kong, aimed at forbidding secessionist and subversive activity, as well as foreign interference and terrorism, after a monthslong pro-democracy protest movement last year that have at times resulted in violent clashes between police and protesters.

Critics say that the national anthem bill is a blow to freedom of expression in the city, while Beijing officials previously said that the law would foster a patriotic spirit and the country’s socialist core values.

Riot police check IDs of workers near the Legislative Council building in Hong Kong, Wednesday, May 27, 2020. Hong Kong's legislature begins debate on a bill that would criminalize insulting or abusing the Chinese national anthem. Opponents see the proposal as part of growing central government infringement on freedoms in the semi-autonomous territory. (AP PhotoKin Cheung)

Riot police block a bridge near the Legislative Council building in Hong Kong, Wednesday, May 27, 2020. Hong Kong's legislature begins debate on a bill that would criminalize insulting or abusing the Chinese national anthem. Opponents see the proposal as part of growing central government infringement on freedoms in the semi-autonomous territory. (AP PhotoKin Cheung)

Riot police stand guard outside the Legislative Council building in Hong Kong, Wednesday, May 27, 2020. Hong Kong's legislature begins debate on a bill that would criminalize insulting or abusing the Chinese national anthem. Opponents see the proposal as part of growing central government infringement on freedoms in the semi-autonomous territory. (AP PhotoKin Cheung)

Riot police stand guard outside the Legislative Council building in Hong Kong, Wednesday, May 27, 2020. Hong Kong's legislature begins debate on a bill that would criminalize insulting or abusing the Chinese national anthem. Opponents see the proposal as part of growing central government infringement on freedoms in the semi-autonomous territory. (AP PhotoKin Cheung)

Riot police check press cards of journalists outside the Legislative Council building in Hong Kong, Wednesday, May 27, 2020. Hong Kong's legislature begins debate on a bill that would criminalize insulting or abusing the Chinese national anthem. Opponents see the proposal as part of growing central government infringement on freedoms in the semi-autonomous territory. (AP PhotoKin Cheung)

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam listens to reporters' questions during a press conference held in Hong Kong, Tuesday, May 26, 2020. Lam tried again Tuesday to defend a new national security law that China's parliament is going to impose on Hong Kong. (AP PhotoVincent Yu)