More than 3,000 riot officers will be deployed on Thursday to enforce a ban against the annual candlelight vigil to commemorate the anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown and other public gatherings, according to police insiders.
They said the ban was being officially enforced on health grounds, and those trying to circumvent the rules by splitting into smaller groups would still be breaking the law.
The warning of a heavy police presence came as organisers of the June 4 mass rally at Victoria Park said they still planned to go regardless, in groups of eight, the limit for public gatherings for at least two more weeks under Covid-19 restrictions.
“Police will observe and enforce the law as the situation requires,” a high-ranking officer told the Post.
Police sources said attempts to get around the law by meeting in groups of eight or fewer would fail if the total number of people gathering for a common purpose in a public place exceeded that figure.
They said some 3,000 riot officers would be ready, with the legislature also expected to vote on the controversial national anthem bill, which would outlaw public and intentional insults to March of the Volunteers.
About 2,000 of them would be deployed on Hong Kong Island, where two water cannons were to be stationed at the government headquarters in Admiralty and near Beijing’s liaison office in Sai Ying Pun, the sources said.
The remaining 1,000 officers would be based in other districts, such as Mong Kok, with another water cannon on standby in West Kowloon.
The insiders said police would take proactive and swift action as they did last Wednesday, when thousands took to the streets to protest against Beijing’s proposed national security law for Hong Kong and the national anthem bill.
Many of the 396 arrested on that day for offences including unlawful assembly were held even before the protests had started.
The sources said the force was unlikely to deploy this “high-handed” strategy to stop people from gathering in Victoria Park, although that depended on how events unfolded.
One said this was because the threat to public order on Thursday was deemed “relatively moderate” – rather than the “high” level of risk ahead of the protests last Wednesday – as there were fewer online appeals for people to join demonstrations.
“But it depends on the size of the crowd and circumstances developing on the site,” he added.
As well as heading to Victoria Park in small groups, the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, which has organised the vigil since 1990, has asked people to join proceedings online and to light candles distributed from 100 street booths across the city.
Organiser Lee Cheuk-yan said he expected police to issue them with fines for breaching the eight-person limit by factoring in other people around them. He said officers had adopted a similar strategy for the Labour Day demonstration on May 1.
He questioned how authorities could conclude that all those attending the Victoria Park vigil in small groups would be gathering for the same purpose and thus breaking social distancing rules.
“I could be commemorating the mother of a Tiananmen Square victim. Another person may be thinking about resistance,” he said.
Police have banned another opposition group, the Hong Kong Association for Democracy and People’s Livelihood, from holding a separate vigil on Thursday evening in Sham Shui Po. An appeal was lodged but rejected on Wednesday.
Barrister Anson Wong Yu-yat said the police interpretation of rules on group gathering was debatable.
“No one can say with certainty whether the court will regard two or more groups of eight protesters physically assembling in a place, while keeping 1½-metre distance between each group, as collectively constituting a prohibited group gathering,” he said.
A spokesman from the Food and Health Bureau said: “Whether a particular gathering is a group gathering depends on the actual circumstances of the case, such as whether the gathering is organised beforehand, whether there is any interaction between the participants, and whether the gathering only lasts for a very short period of time.”
Breaching the social distancing rules carries a fine of HK$2,000 (US$258) for participants and a HK$25,000 fine and six months in jail for organisers.