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Wednesday, Jan 27, 2021

Hundreds take to malls for lunchtime rallies marking one-year anniversary of anti-government movement

Demonstrators gather across at least four major shopping centres to sing anthems, chant familiar slogans. Pointing to lack of universal suffrage, one clerk says you ‘can’t blame the victims’, but concedes Covid-19, security law fears have hampered movement

Hundreds of protesters turned up in malls across Hong Kong on Tuesday, chanting defiant slogans and waving banners as they marked the first anniversary of an extradition bill protest that would soon morph into months of anti-government unrest.

“Liberate Hong Kong; revolution of our times”, protesters shouted at lunch time protests taking place across at least four major shopping centres in the city.

Inside the Landmark mall in Central, protesters spread posters across the floor bearing political slogans and supportive messages, asking fellow demonstrators not to forget their “original cause”.

Others waved a black flag demanding the city be ”liberated”, along with the city’s British colonial flag, while singing a rendition of the protest’s de facto anthem Glory to Hong Kong.

The mix of protesters ranged from secondary school students to middle-aged office workers.

While about 10 security guards at Landmark held up signs reminding people of social-distancing measures, there was no police presence inside the mall.

Sam Ho, an accountant in his 30s who occasionally joins lunchtime protests, said he was concerned by the national security law Beijing will soon impose on the city and feared Hongkongers could be “arrested for no reason” under the new legislation.

Last month, Beijing announced it would draft a national security law for the city, citing wider calls for independence and self-determination and saying Hong Kong had failed to the job on its own following months of protests.

“I don’t feel safe at all. I even have to use a VPN to go on the internet and say what I want to say,” Ho said. “I feel like I needed to come out and express myself ... because I don’t know if I’ll get a chance to do it in the future.”

A 45-year-old clerk, Helen Leung, had similar fears, but said she did not believe last year’s protests were the real reason for the law.

“Hong Kong has obviously changed for the worse this past year, but I don’t agree that protesting led to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) using their ‘super weapon’, the national security law,” she said.

“You can’t blame the victims. If the CCP gave us universal suffrage, then we wouldn’t need to do so much. But they broke their promise and violated what was guaranteed under Basic Law.”

The city’s mini-constitution, under Article 23, also requires the city to enact its own national security law. But the government’s lone attempt to introduce one in 2003 was abandoned after it triggered a 500,000-strong protest.

Nonetheless, Leung said she did not believe the situation would be different even if Hong Kong had passed its own law. “They will just keep piling pressure on us until we feel like jumping off the edge,” she said.

The security law the central government intends to promulgate will outlaw acts of secession, subversion, terrorism and foreign interference in city affairs, sparking concern in some corners that longstanding freedoms could be in danger.

The clerk conceded that the momentum of the pro-democracy movement had fallen off noticeably due to the coronavirus pandemic and fears over the new law, but added that while “some are scared, it doesn’t mean they will kowtow to the CCP”.

Separate protests were taking place simultaneously at other shopping centres across the city, including Kwun Tong’s APM mall, where supporters flocked to upper floors overlooking the atrium to raise their lighted mobile phones, while protesters were also spotted at Cityplaza in Tai Koo and Kwai Chung’s Kowloon Commercial Centre.

As Tuesday’s lunchtime protests were wrapping up, the Civil Human Rights Front, the group behind last year’s largest peaceful marches, urged Hong Kong residents to dress in black next Monday to mark the death of a protester who fell from Pacific Place mall in Admiralty on June 15 last year.

The protester, Marco Leung Ling-kit, also known as “Raincoat Man”, died while displaying a banner demanding the withdrawal of the extradition bill and the release of arrested protesters.

The front, an umbrella organisation in the pro-democracy camp, said they would not be able to hold a public gathering to mourn Leung’s death due to the government’s ban on public gathering’s larger than eight amid the coronavirus outbreak, which its convener said was being used as a pretext to clamp down on dissent.

“At this juncture we do not know what more can be done,” Jimmy Sham Tsz-kit said, adding some of the front’s members planned to make a tribute to Leung outside the mall next Monday.

Exactly a year ago, a sea of people in white T-shirts – the movement’s initial default colour, as opposed to the now-familiar black – took to the streets of Causeway Bay, Wan Chai and Admiralty to oppose the extradition bill proposed then by the government. An estimated 1 million people were said to have attended the march, which failed to influence the government’s plan.

Three days later, on June 12, angry protesters surrounded the city’s Legislative Council in Admiralty in a bid to block lawmakers from debating the bill. Riot police officers fired tear gas and rubber bullets amid clashes in a bid to disperse the crowds.

Another, even larger march, estimated to be attended by 2 million people, would follow on June 16.

The government eventually withdrew the bill in September, but by then, the movement had grown increasingly violent, with radical protesters vandalising shops and frequently clashing with police in nighttime battles.

The police force, in turn, was accused of using excessive force in handling the situation, including the widespread use of tear gas and even live ammunition in a few instances.

The protest movement dwindled earlier this year as Covid-19 hit. But it has returned, albeit on a smaller scale, in recent weeks, as Beijing’s plan to enact a security law outlawing acts of secession, subversion, terrorism and foreign interference, has sparked fears over the potential erosion of rights.

The Hong Kong government and Beijing have repeatedly stressed it would target only a minority of people.


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