Online calls for residents to take to the streets of Hong Kong to protest their grievances on National Day went largely unmet, with only small crowds gathering to chant slogans and risk arrest from the thousands of police officers deployed on the streets.
Roadblocks and frequent ID checks proved frustrating to people who said they simply wanted to use Thursday’s public holiday, which coincided with the Mid-Autumn Festival, to go shopping or join family for a meal.
A precise count of demonstrators was impossible due to their scattered appearance, but the total was estimated to be in the hundreds, far short of the tens of thousands who fanned out across the city in the previous year, when violence flared long into the night.
While small demonstrations took place in Mong Kok and Tsuen Wan, the biggest turnout emerged in the retail heart of Causeway Bay.
woman in her 60s said she and her daughter, with a friend in tow, were out browsing stores when they became caught in a cordoned-off area on Paterson Street. The mother said officers allowed her to leave but detained her 38-year-old daughter and the friend, who were put on a police bus.
“We were supposed to have steak for dinner tonight as it is the Mid-Autumn Festival,” she said. “I don’t know where to find my daughter now.”
Police had earlier banned a planned march from Causeway Bay to Central, citing risks to public safety and health amid the coronavirus pandemic.
In the days leading up to the holiday, authorities reminded the public the march was illegal and anyone calling for independence would run afoul of the Beijing-enacted national security law, targeting acts of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces.
Early in the day, a handful of activists gathered outside Sogo Mall in Causeway Bay and a larger crowd began to grow at the junction between Paterson Street and Great George Street. Police issued warnings that groups of more than four people violated social-distancing rules and also raised a blue flag, cautioning against unlawful assemblies.
In the afternoon, a small number of demonstrators attempted to rouse passers-by into a chant but they were unsuccessful, although efforts hours later did manage to convince a larger group to join in shouting: “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times”.
Police repeatedly held up purple flags warning against breaching the national security law, while some officers were targeted with profanities.
To manage crowd sizes, the force carried out its strategy of intervening often and quickly, making at least 86 arrests over the course of the day, the bulk of them in Causeway Bay. But some residents complained the security tactics went too far.
“It’s like there are no human rights,” said Lau Fung, a 67-year-old security guard who was stopped on Lockhart Road in Causeway Bay to have his backpack searched. He said police told him he looked suspicious. “There’s no human dignity,” Fung said.
The media was also out in force, with packs of yellow-vested journalists swarming around potential hotspots. Police last week tightened rules for recognising members of the press, limiting the pool to only those registered with the government in a bid to avoid the chaotic scenes of reporters and officers bunching together at previous rallies.
But the revision has left many student journalists and freelancers unable to report on events without risking a fine or arrest. At least two journalists were ticketed HK$2,000 (US$258) for breaching the ban on public gatherings of four or more, while another was taken away.
Student journalist Andrew Yee Ho-chun, 21, who reported for Polytechnic University’s campus radio, said he now had to rethink his approach.
“When scenes get tense, I have to consider whether to go cover them now because the cost of doing my coverage has gone up,” Yee said.
At one point, police trapped dozens of journalists on Paterson Street and demanded they show their press identification before letting them go.
A freelancer for German newspaper Die Welt, who was stopped in Causeway Bay, said she was allowed to leave after police made further inquiries. But two journalists from online media Lustrous Imprint, which has about 800 followers on Facebook, were served fixed fines of HK$2,000 for breaching the social-distancing rule.
Senior journalism lecturer Bruce Lui Ping-kuen at Baptist University, who went to the area to observe events, called the move unreasonable and said cordoning off areas was unnecessary. Later in the day, officers stopped and checked several other journalists in Tsuen Wan.
Police also took away a 16-year-old with the online Real Time News, according to an employee.
Police condemned two protesters who reportedly hurled petrol bombs onto Lung Cheung Road in Wong Tai Sin at around 3pm. They also intercepted a car on Tuen Mun Road near Summit Terrace, with a search revealing a retractable baton, helmet, mask and leaflets that carried what was described as “pro-Hong Kong independence slogans”.
By evening, officers were stationed at the foot and top of Lion Rock that towers over Kowloon, following online calls to form human chains. They stopped some walking up the hill for ID checks. Video posted online showed dozens of tiny lights from mobile phones dotting the dark landscape.
The founder of Civil Human Rights Observer, Icarus Wong Ho-yin, said the national security law had cast a chill over Hong Kong.
He feared residents might be held back from voicing their dissatisfaction after seeing how the law was being enforced. “Yelling a slogan will get you into trouble, let along showing up to protest,” Wong said.
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