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Protesters hold banners as they march on the street during a rally in Hong Kong, (Photographer: Anthony Kwan/Bloomberg)

Tens of thousands of protesters marched in Hong Kong on Friday

Yesterday, in an event which included official celebrations and a protest march, tensions hang over Hong Kong's usual 1 July commemoration of the handover from the U.K. to China.

Tens of thousands of protesters marched in Hong Kong yesterday to mark the anniversary, with pro-independence groups rallying for the first time amid fears Beijing is tightening its grip.

The anniversary of the handover on July 1, 1997, came while tensions remained high after sensational revelations by a Hong Kong bookseller who said he was detained and interrogated for months in mainland China.

Hong Kong bookseller Lam Wing-kee. Lam is one of five city booksellers known for selling gossipy titles about Beijing politicians who have disappeared and later resurfaced in China. Lam claimed he was kept in a cell, blindfolded and interrogated. (Photo credit - ANTHONY WALLACE/AFP/Getty Images)
Hong Kong bookseller Lam Wing-kee. Lam is one of five city booksellers known for selling gossipy titles about Beijing politicians who have disappeared and later resurfaced in China. Lam claimed he was kept in a cell, blindfolded and interrogated. (Photo credit - ANTHONY WALLACE/AFP)

Lam Wing-kee, 61, was one of five city booksellers known for gossipy titles about mainland politicians who went missing last year and resurfaced over the border.

Lam was supposed to lead the protest march on Friday but pulled out from the event at the last minute, reportedly over fears for his personal safety.

BBC reported that Albert Ho, a lawmaker who has been advising Lam had said that Lam felt he was under intense surveillance. "He has been physically followed by unknown people. He is under intense pressure." Ho added that arrangements were being made for Mr Lam to go to a safe house.

Lam's story fanned growing concerns that Beijing is tightening its grip on semi-autonomous Hong Kong, which is ruled under a "one country, two systems" deal enshrined in the handover agreement, guaranteeing its freedoms and way of life.

Many said they took to the streets because they feared that the freedoms they had enjoyed would be taken away like those of the booksellers.

“The central government is destroying ‘one country, two systems’,” said Form 5 student Man Chun-kit. “Up to now the doubts are not yet cleared as to whether mainland agencies breached the law and took law enforcement action in Hong Kong. [The booksellers’ case] seems to me one of political oppression.”

Various sectors of society traditionally air grievances at the annual 1 July march - this year protesters called for unpopular city leader Leung Chun-ying to resign; he recently hinted he may stand for a second term in 2017.

Leung and his government are seen by critics as stooges of Beijing and have been slammed for failing to help the booksellers.

"They are angry with the current government and very disappointed at how things are managed," said organiser Jackie Hung of the Civil Human Rights Front.

"Lam's case is a very clear message to the world that China has already destroyed 'one country, two systems'," said Edward Leung, of Hong Kong Indigenous.

Edward Leung is part of the emerging "localist" movement which grew out of disappointment that the largely peaceful 2014 protests failed to win concessions.

Some activists are now demanding a return to British rule as a stepping stone towards independence, while others say violence may be necessary to force change.- Leung himself is facing charges over clashes with police in the commercial neighbourhood of Mong Kok in February. Localist activists have kept a low profile since then.

Ma Ngok, a political sciences professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong said, "They have been under some pressure; they haven't been able to do anything since the Mong Kok riots, I expect them to do something dramatic."

Jimmy Sham Tsz-kit, convenor of the Civil Human Rights Front, announced that 110,000 people had participated in the march while the Hong Kong police estimated turnout was only 19,300 at its peak.

Attribution from media sources