HK seethes a year on as protesters resume lunch rallies after virus pause

Protesters wave a Hong Kong colonial flag in a shopping mall during a protest today. (AP pic)

HONG KONG: Hong Kong on Tuesday marked a year since pro-democracy protests erupted, as mass arrests, coronavirus bans on gatherings and a looming national security law kept a lid on any return to city-wide unrest.

Seven months of massive and often violent rallies kicked off on June 9 last year when as many as one million people took to the streets to oppose a bill allowing extraditions to mainland China.

As city leaders dug in, battles between police and protesters became routine, leaving the city’s reputation for stability in tatters and swathes of the population in revolt against Beijing’s rule.

On Tuesday, flash-mob protests were held during the lunchtime break in multiple malls but crowds were just a few hundred strong.

“I will take to the streets as long as there is a march and I will sit in as long as there is a rally,” a trader in her fifties surnamed Ng, who said she regularly travelled to the authoritarian mainland, told AFP.

“I know how things work there and I can’t accept that sort of system taking root in Hong Kong.”

Messaging groups also called for gatherings in the evening.

City leader Carrie Lam, an unpopular pro-Beijing appointee, was peppered with questions from reporters on Tuesday about the unrest under her tenure.

“Hong Kong cannot afford such chaos,” she said, adding residents needed “to prove that Hong Kong people are reasonable and sensible citizens of the People’s Republic of China” if they want their freedoms and autonomy to continue.

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Under a deal signed with Britain ahead of the 1997 handover, China agreed to let Hong Kong keep certain freedoms and autonomy for 50 years.

Protests over the last decade have been fuelled by fears those freedoms are being prematurely curtailed, something Beijing denies.

Analysts say the space for dissent has rapidly diminished in the last year.

“I don’t think the passion has subsided much, but the problem is that many actions are now not allowed in the current circumstances,” Leung Kai-chi, an analyst at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), told AFP.

“People are waiting for a chance, they of course want to come out again… but they will not do that carelessly,” added Francis Lee, head of CUHK’s journalism school.

Beyond a withdrawal of the extradition bill, the protest movement’s core demands – such as universal suffrage and an inquiry into police tactics – have been rejected by the city’s leadership and Beijing.

Instead, China has unveiled plans to impose a more sweeping law – one that will bypass the city’s legislature entirely – banning subversion, secession, terrorism and foreign interference.

China says an anti-subversion law will only target “a small minority” and will restore business confidence.

Opponents fear the law will bring mainland-style political oppression to the business hub. Anti-subversion laws are routinely used on the mainland to stamp out dissent.

“First (Beijing) loses the hearts and minds of Hong Kong’s people and then it seeks to force them to be loyal,” said Kong Tsung-gan, an activist who has published three books on the protest movement.

Over the last year, around 9,000 people have been arrested and more than 500 people have been charged with rioting, which would face up to 10 years in jail if convicted.

Two prominent activists had their charges upgraded to rioting on Tuesday for entering the city’s legislature when it was broken into by protesters last July.

The protest movement was already on the back foot before emergency coronavirus laws banned gatherings of more than eight people.

Still, protests have bubbled up again since the security law plans were announced – including tens of thousands defying a ban on a June 4 gathering to mark the anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown.