Hong Kong’s leader Thursday hailed her city’s “return to peace” after China imposed a security law that helped quash last year’s huge democracy movement, as thousands of police were on standby to stamp out any mass rallies during National Day celebrations.
The People’s Republic of China celebrates its founding on October 1 with a holiday and carefully choreographed festivities.
But in Hong Kong, it has become a day of grievance for those worried about authoritarian Beijing’s intensifying crackdown against its opponents.
Protest has been effectively outlawed for most of this year and Beijing also imposed a strict national security law on the semi-autonomous business hub in June.
On Thursday morning, helicopters flying the Chinese and Hong Kong flags buzzed the harbour as Chief Executive Carrie Lam and senior mainland officials attended a ceremony ringed by police and security barriers.
“Over the past few months, an indisputable fact in front of everyone is that our society has returned to peace,” Lam said in her speech.
“Our country’s national security has been protected in Hong Kong and our citizens can again exercise their rights and liberties in accordance with laws,” she added.
Last year, the 70th anniversary brought fierce clashes between protesters and police during seven months of democracy demonstrations that upended Hong Kong.
Authorities denied permission for a protest march this year, citing security concerns and an anti-coronavirus ban on more than four people gathering in public.
Lam’s administration also suspended September local elections for a year — one of the few occasions when Hong Kongers get to cast a vote — citing the risk posed by the pandemic.
A police source told AFP that 6,000 police officers had been drafted in to stop any protests — double the contingency usually placed on reserve.
‘End one-party rule’
Throughout the morning, groups of prominent democracy activists held small rallies — deliberately keeping to no more than four people.
One group chanted “End one-party rule” and burned a protest petition, surrounded by some 40 police officers.
Others gathered in groups of four outside the heavily guarded Liaison Office that represents Beijing’s government in the city.
“In today’s China, those who pursue freedom are suppressed while those doing the suppressing are in power,” activist Lee Cheuk-yan told reporters.
A day earlier, office director Luo Huining gave a speech calling for more patriotism to be instilled in Hong Kong, saying pride for the motherland was a duty, not a choice.
Police maintained a high presence throughout the city on Thursday, conducting multiple stop and searches.
Five people were also arrested earlier in the week on suspicion of inciting others to protest and commit violent acts.
The rejected rally application was made by the Civil Human Rights Front — a coalition that organised record-breaking marches last year.
The group is calling for the release of 12 Hong Kongers in mainland Chinese custody who were caught last month trying to flee protest-linked prosecutions.
Those 12 were trying to escape to Taiwan by boat but were intercepted by the Chinese coastguard and have since disappeared into the mainland’s opaque judicial system.
For most of this year, protest has been all but impossible in Hong Kong.
On the rare occasions when demonstrations do bubble up, riot police and plain-clothes officers move quickly — on one day last month nearly 300 people were arrested.
Over the last 16 months, more than 10,000 have been detained during protests and the courts are crammed with trials. Many prominent protest leaders are being prosecuted.
New security law
The crackdown has been aided by the national security law that China imposed on the city in June.
The broadly worded legislation criminalised expressing certain opinions, deepened the political chill seeping into the city and allowed mainland China’s security apparatus to operate openly in Hong Kong for the first time.
The security law has led to sanctions by the United States and condemnation by many other Western nations.
But Beijing and Hong Kong authorities say it is needed to restore stability.
“The national security law will absolutely stop rabble-rousers in Hong Kong from having their capricious way,” the Liaison Office, which represents China’s government in Hong Kong, said this week.