Hong Kong riot police patrolling the route of a banned anti-government march arrested dozens of people on Thursday, stopping crowds from gathering as Chief Executive Carrie Lam hailed the city’s “return to peace” at China national day celebrations.
The People’s Republic of China marks its founding on October 1 with a holiday and choreographed festivities, but last year’s events were marred by fierce clashes between protesters and police in Hong Kong, a semi-autonomous territory where China imposed sweeping national security legislation in June.
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And while police refused a permit for a proposed march, riot police were on Thursday conducting stop-and-search operations along what was expected to be the route.
Police were seen rounding up more than 50 people downtown and binding their wrists with plexicuffs before putting them on buses. Police said in a Facebook post that they were looking for two men who threw petrol bombs to bloc traffic in another area of the city.
In the air, helicopters flying the Chinese and Hong Kong flags hovered above the harbour where Lam, the territory’s chief executive, and senior mainland officials, were attending an official National Day ceremony amid tight security.
“Over the past few months, an indisputable fact in front of everyone is that our society has returned to peace,” Lam said.
“Our country’s national security has been protected in Hong Kong and our citizens can again exercise their rights and liberties in accordance with laws,” she added.
Anti-government protests, which often turned violent in 2019, have been smaller and fewer this year thanks to coronavirus restrictions on group gatherings and the national security law that was imposed by Beijing on June 30.
“Protesting conventionally in Hong Kong is now essentially over, the combined effects of coronavirus as well the new security law means that we do not see a repeat of the large protests of a year ago,” said Al Jazeera’s Adrian Brown, remembering the level of violence during demonstrations in October 2019 when an activist involved in anti-government protests had been shot at the chest by the police.
“We are not seeing anything like this now, but the sentiment behind the movement is still pretty much there,” said Brown, reporting from Hong Kong. “It’s just that people have to be more creative and inventive in the way they demonstrate,” he added, pointing at people holding up the city’s most popular newspaper owned by a man recently arrested due to the new security law.
A defiant protester said she will try to keep fighting.
“It’s China’s national day but this is Hong Kong’s death day,” said Jay, a woman dressed in black, the city’s protest attire, as she walked past police. “Hong Kong people are under a lot of pressure but we have to try and keep fighting for freedom.”
On the rare occasions when there are protests, police swoop in quickly – on one day last month nearly 300 people were arrested, according to AFP news agency.
More than 10,000 people have been detained since the 2019 protests began, and the courts are now jammed with cases related to the demonstrations and the pro-democracy campaign.
“Even if they try to arrest us, prosecute us and lock us up in prison there is no reason for us to surrender,” activist Joshua Wong told reporters on Wednesday.
There have been calls online for protests in several districts after the police rejected the request from the Civil Human Rights Front, which mobilised million-people marches last year, to hold a rally citing COVID-19 and violence at previous marches.
It was unclear how many people would join any demonstrations.
“I don’t think protesting is an effective way to express my opinion, because the government tries every method to suppress protests,” said 22-year-old Lee as she looked at a group of police officers across the street.
The Hong Kong government has also blamed the pandemic for its decision to delay by a year legislative council elections that were due to take place last month and in which pro-democracy candidates were expected to do well.
Four members of the League of Social Democrats, led by veteran activist Leung Kwok-hung, known as Long Hair, marched. holding a banner reading: “There is no national day celebration, only national mourning.” Four is the maximum number of people allowed to gather under coronavirus restrictions.
The national day holiday is resented by many democracy supporters in Hong Kong who say Beijing is eroding the wide-ranging liberties the former British colony was promised for at least 50 years when it was returned to Chinese rule in 1997.
For pro-Beijing supporters, it is an opportunity to drum up patriotism in China’s most restive city.
The South China Morning Post newspaper reported earlier this week that some 6,000 police officers would be deployed in case of protests on Thursday.
Meanwhile, the Hong Kong government honoured many of police officers in its Honours List including awards for bravery in their handling of the protests.
The government gave out a total of 687 awards – almost 300 more than last year – and about a dozen officers received bravery medals for their response to what was described as “ferocious assaults” by “rioters”, according to public service broadcaster RTHK reported.
More than 50, including senior officers Rupert Dover and David Jordan who stayed on after British rule came to an end, were given the Chief Executive’s Commendation for Public Service for their “outstanding contributions in relation to the handling of social incidents”.
— Galileo Cheng (@galileocheng) September 30, 2020
An independent investigation into policy brutality during the pro-democracy rallies, is one of the protesters’ five key demands.
Benedict Rogers, the London-based founder and chief executive of Hong Kong Watch, described the awards to the officers as an “outrage”.
“These senior cops should be prosecuted & sanctioned, not honoured,” he wrote on Twitter.