At least 86 people have been arrested in Hong Kong on suspicion of participating in an unauthorised assembly or committing other offences on National Day as riot police patrolled the city, and stopped and searched passers-by.
Hong Kong had earlier braced for potential chaos on Thursday, but there were more police than anti-government protesters on the streets, with authorities deploying some 6,000 officers on the 71st anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China.
A proposed march by the activist group Civil Human Rights Front had earlier been banned on the grounds of public safety and health reasons amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The front had wanted to organise the demonstration to show support for 12 Hong Kong fugitives captured at sea while fleeing to Taiwan and who are now detained in mainland China, accused of crimes related to illegal border crossing.
Small groups of people, mostly dressed in black, gathered in Causeway Bay, but officers were on every street corner in the popular shopping hub, which was also the proposed starting point of the banned march.
Defiant demonstrators had stressed they had a right to protest, with some making it clear they were not afraid of the Beijing-imposed national security law.
As of 10pm, police said, at least 86 people were arrested across Hong Kong. Among them, 74 – including four district councillors – were held on suspicion of participating in an unauthorised assembly in Causeway Bay.
Twenty people were also fined for violating social-distancing rules that ban gatherings of more than four people.
Police expressed “shock and regret” that public office holders – the district councillors – had ignored public order and were suspected of taking part in an unauthorised assembly.
On Thursday evening, police officers were also stationed at the foot and summit of Hong Kong’s iconic Lion Rock following calls from online users to form human chains and flash their phones to light up the hill rising 495 metres (1,624 feet) over Kowloon.
Some people who tried to walk up the hill had their identity cards checked by police.
Police reportedly stopped some from going up, saying there was an unauthorised assembly there.
There were no more than a few hundred protesters in Causeway Bay in the afternoon, though more exact figures were difficult to gauge because the crowd was fluid, scattering across the district, with some chanting briefly and quickly leaving as police approached.
At around 3.30pm, riot police briefly raised a purple flag warning against acts which breached the national security law, after people gathered near Great George Street and chanted “Liberate Hong Kong; revolution of our times”, a clarion call from last year’s anti-government movement and months-long social unrest.
The flag was displayed again at around 4pm as protesters were warned they could be violating the sweeping new law after some shouted “rogue cops” and cursed officers’ families. Inciting hatred against the authorities is considered a crime under the law.
Earlier, a blue flag warning of an unauthorised assembly was displayed several times, with about 40 mostly young people detained by officers outside the Fashion Walk shopping centre.
By 7pm, most of those chanting protest slogans in Causeway Bay were gone. But police were still stopping and searching people near the Sogo department store.
About six people were seen being led into police vehicles and taken away. One of them, a woman, shouted: “Hong Kong police are violating human rights.”
Police also condemned two protesters who reportedly hurled petrol bombs onto Lung Cheung Road in Wong Tai Sin at around 3pm. The force said officers arrived at the scene and found scorch marks, railings and traffic cones on the road after receiving reports that suggested two men had thrown petrol bombs and projectiles towards the thoroughfare.
“The evil acts of the rioters have severely jeopardised the personal safety of road users and constituted a breach of the peace,” police wrote on their social media platform.
Police added that at around the same time, they had intercepted a suspicious car at a roadblock on Tuen Mun Road. In the vehicle, officers found a retractable baton, helmet, mask and many leaflets that carried what they described as “Hong Kong independence slogans”.
The 35-year-old driver was arrested for allegedly “possessing an instrument fit for unlawful purpose”, “driving a car without third-party insurance” and “driving a car during an unlicensed period”.
But the day’s events were a far cry from one year ago when China’s grand celebrations to mark the 70th anniversary of communist rule were marred by violent protests in Hong Kong, with a police officer opening fire at a demonstrator for the first time, injuring him in the chest.
Student Max Jin played a rendition of Glory to Hong Kong, the city’s de facto protest anthem, on the street in Causeway Bay.
The 18-year-old student, who majors in programming, said since the national security law came into force, many things had become taboo, including the lyrics of the song, which has been banned in schools.
“Some have replaced the lyrics with numbers. I decided to play the melody with my recorder,” he said, while acknowledging it had become more risky to protest these days.
However, he said he came out because he believed it was important not to be silenced.
Earlier, a man briefly raised an American flag outside Sogo department store, then quickly left after police told him he was behaving in a disorderly manner.
Shopping centres in Tsim Sha Tsui opened their doors just before noon, although shoppers were few and far between.
At Harbour City, Anna Tse took her seven-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son to buy toys, with the children excited to eat at a pizza restaurant.
“‘Golden week’ is very empty this year, I preferred it when it was bustling,” she said, referring to China’s eight-day holiday stretch.
Crystal Fung took her four-year-old son for a stroll along Victoria Harbour, something she said was challenging when the iconic spot was crowded with mainland tourists.
“It’s so much more relaxing without the mainland tourists, at least it gives some space for us locals to move around,” Fung said. “I don’t really have any shopping plans, maybe we’ll find a place to eat if we get hungry.”
One youngster named Lam taking photos outside Harbour City said she did not consider attending the protest, although she opposed the government for “restricting the freedom” of residents.
Lam said she attended some demonstrations last year but had stopped even before the national security law came into effect as protests had become more dangerous.
In Causeway Bay, supporters of the anti-government movement were also glad to see that massive protests did not occur.
“Wanting the protest to proceed is just like asking how many arrests you would like to see at the end of the day,” said Bobo Chow, a Causeway Bay resident and retiree in her 50s.
“I’d tell youngsters not to fight back. They’re too naive when they think they can fight back against the regime.”
Following calls online for protesters to gather on Fleming Road in Wan Chai, police rounded up more than 20 people on Johnston Road a few streets away, including a father and his young son.
Police had apparently targeted people wearing black shirts, and IT technician Marco Leung Tsz-ching said he was stopped on Johnston Road for about 15 minutes while walking on the street.
“I didn’t know why they pulled me to the side. I didn’t know the others who were also being stopped by police,” the 28-year-old said.
He said police told him he was suspected of taking part in an unlawful assembly, but was released after showing officers his identity card and emptying his pockets.
Lau Fung, a 67-year-old security guard, was stopped on Lockhart Road in Causeway Bay and had his backpack searched because police said he looked suspicious.
He said officers accused him of assaulting them after he pointed his cigarette at them. Lau, who worked nearby and was released 30 minutes later, said he was angry at being stopped.
“It’s like there are no human rights,” he said. “There’s no human dignity.”
Leon, a construction worker who was travelling to meet his friend in Aberdeen later, was approached by police outside Mong Kok East MTR station. He was let go after 10 minutes.
The 28-year-old said he only had some clothes with him, but was still stopped and thought police had “overdone it”.
Earlier this week, police amended their guidelines such that student reporters and freelancers effectively were no longer recognised. They would only recognise media outlets registered with the government.
In Causeway Bay, some journalists had their press accreditation checked on Thursday afternoon. Police also fined several online media journalists for violating social-distancing rules.
Student journalist Andew Yee Ho-chun, 21, who was reporting for the campus radio at Polytechnic University, said the new rules sent a chilling effect.
“When situations get tense, I will have to consider whether to go over to cover them now because the cost of doing my coverage has gone up,” said Yee, who feared he could be fined for breaching social-distancing rules or arrested if police treated him as a passer-by.
But he said he would try not to let that affect his work. “After all, I am really doing my work here,” he said.
In the evening, a Telegram group sent out a call for protesters to gather at Lo Tak Court in Tsuen Wan. Officers arrived at the scene shortly afterwards and asked to check the press accreditations of about seven journalists who were there. One reporter from an online news platform who was believed to be under 16 was taken into a police vehicle.
On Thursday afternoon, a few people chanted protest slogans such as “Liberate Hong Kong; revolution of our times” at the Moko shopping centre in Mong Kok.
Police officers who patrolled outside the mall briefly entered the premises but left without taking any action.
Protester Ma Chun-man was shouting slogans despite having been arrested three times by police for similar conduct last month.
“I want to advocate independence,” Ma said. “Some slogans may contravene the law, but we still have to speak up. Why? Because we need to voice our demands.”
He added: “Protesters cannot really commit secession by taking to the streets. Even though people assemble together to demonstrate and shout slogans, they will leave peacefully in the end.”
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