Dozens of people were arrested Thursday for violating a ban on demonstrations on China’s National Day in Hong Kong, where Chief Executive Carrie Lam hailed the return to stability.
The People’s Republic of China celebrates its creation every October 1, a public holiday that gives rise to highly supervised official festivities.
In the former British colony, this holiday is also an opportunity for a part of the population to express their anger against Beijing’s desire to reverse the freedoms guaranteed as part of the agreement to return it to China in 1997.
Most protests have been banned since the start of the year in Hong Kong, when a draconian national security law, imposed by Beijing, came into force in June.
Helicopters displaying Chinese and Hong Kong flags flew over the territory as Ms. Lam and Chinese officials participated in a commemoration at the exhibition center, under close protection from law enforcement.
“In the last few months, an indisputable fact for everyone is that our society is once again enjoying peace,” Ms. Lam said in her speech. “The national security of our country has been protected in Hong Kong and our citizens can once again exercise their rights and freedoms according to the laws.”
At least 60 arrests
Hours later, police attacked people chanting slogans in the Causeway Bay shopping district, the scene of heavy clashes over the past year.
Police said they arrested at least 80 people, most of them for participating in a “prohibited rally.” She also waved banners to warn the crowd that she was breaking the national security law by chanting slogans.
Last year, the 70th anniversary sparked violent clashes between pro-democracy protesters and the police.
Authorities this year banned any demonstration for security reasons and the fight against the coronavirus, which prevents public gatherings of more than four people.
Ms. Lam, appointed by Beijing, had also invoked the virus to postpone the legislative elections scheduled for early September to July.
A police source told AFP that 6,000 police officers were mobilized on Thursday, double the number normally requisitioned when authorities expect protests.
Throughout the day, groups of well-known activists from the pro-democracy movement held small rallies, being careful to never be more than four.
“In today’s China, those who want freedom are suppressed while those who suppress it are in power,” activist Lee Cheuk-yan told reporters.
Another, surrounded by around 40 police officers, chanted “put an end to the one-party rule” and burned a petition.
Protesters also gathered outside the Liaison Office, which houses the Chinese central government relays in Hong Kong and was under guard.
The day before, Liaison Office Director Luo Huining called in a speech to instill more patriotism in Hong Kong, saying being proud of the motherland is a duty.
Riot police in Causeway Bay outnumbered locals and onlookers chanting slogans Thursday afternoon.
The police very quickly proceeded to searches and checks of people who seemed to them suspicious or ordered them to leave the premises like a man blowing a whistle for a protest hymn or another waving a yellow balloon, associated color to the pro-democracy movement.
One protester, who gave only his first name Ricky, had chosen to read pro-democracy Apple Daily ostensibly.
“Everyone knows that under the National Security Law you can’t say a lot anymore,” he told AFP, “but I want to keep going out.”
Since the start of the year, it has been almost impossible to organize protests in the city.
During the rare gatherings that have taken place, riot police and plainclothes police quickly intervened: in a single day in early September nearly 300 people were arrested.
More than 10,000 people have been arrested for participating in protests over the past 16 months, along with several pro-democracy leaders.
The entry into force of the National Security Law helped put an end to the protest movement that rocked the territory last year.
It represses in particular secession and subversion, by providing for particularly severe penalties.
Condemned by many Western countries, it is considered necessary by Beijing and Hong Kong to restore stability.
It “will prevent troublemakers in Hong Kong from freaking out,” the Liaison Office said this week.