Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam warned on Tuesday the city could not afford further "chaos" as activists marked a year of sustained pro-democracy rallies with lunchtime protests in several shopping malls.
The global financial hub is on alert for unrest with larger gatherings planned for the evening to mark the first anniversary of a mass rally that galvanised the pro-democracy movement.
That first rally, which drew an estimated more than one million protesters in a city of 7.5 million people, was spurred by proposed legislation to allow people to be extradited to mainland China, where the courts are controlled by the Communist Party.
Lam later withdrew the bill but the legislation triggered widespread concern that the central government in Beijing was stifling freedoms in the former British colony despite promises it would retain a high level of autonomy, sparking months of often-violent protests.
"All of us can see the difficulty we have been through in the past year, and due to such serious situations we have more problems to deal with," Lam said during her weekly media conference.
"We need to learn from mistakes, I wish all lawmakers can learn from mistakes - that Hong Kong cannot bear such chaos."
Almost 9,000 people, aged between 11 and 84, were arrested in relation to protests over the past year, police said late on Monday. More than 600 were charged with rioting.
After a relative lull in protests during the coronavirus outbreak, demonstrators have returned to the streets as Beijing drafts national security laws activists fear will further undermine freedoms.
Dozens of people gathered in several shopping malls across Hong Kong at lunchtime on Tuesday, chanting slogans such as "Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times," before dispersing peacefully after about an hour.
Some protesters held placards reading "We can't breathe! Free HK" and "Young lives matter", in a nod to the U.S. protests against police brutality sparked by the death of black man George Floyd after a white police officer in Minneapolis knelt on his neck.
Activists were planning larger evening protests and have also said they intend to hold a referendum on Sunday about whether to launch a city-wide strike against the national security laws proposed last month.
Authorities have insisted the legislation will focus on small numbers of "troublemakers" who pose a threat to national security and would not curb freedoms or hurt investors. Lam cautioned against the activists' plans to hold a strike referendum.
"Resist and Defy"
Prominent pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong said the world had borne witness to "the deteriorating situation in Hong Kong, with Beijing tightening its grip over the city's liberties."
"I have strong confidence in Hongkongers that we will have ways to resist and defy," Wong posted on Twitter. "Moreover, I hope the world can stand with Hong Kong and protect the city from falling."
Human Rights Watch also urged other countries to pressure China on the issue.
"For the past year, Hong Kong people have made clear their peaceful demands for freedom and autonomy," Sophie Richardson, the group's China director, said in a statement. "But the authorities in Beijing and Hong Kong choose to respond with ever-greater repression and violence."
The United States, the European Union and others have made public their concerns about the proposed national security legislation, which Beijing has decried as foreign meddling in internal affairs.
A Chinese official this week suggested that the degree of autonomy that Hong Kong would have when the post-colonial agreement on its high degree of autonomy runs out in 2047 could depend on how the city behaves until then.