Hong Kong leader hails 'return to peace', anniversary protests banned

Jerome Taylor and Yan Zhao, Agence France-Presse

Posted at Oct 01 2020 01:40 PM

Pro-democracy protesters, including veteran activist Leung Kwok-hung, march during a demonstration near a flag-raising ceremony on Chinese National Day in Hong Kong, China, October 1, 2020. The banner reads: "There is no national day celebration, only national mourning". Joyce Zhou, Reuters/file

HONG KONG - Hong Kong's leader Thursday hailed her city's "return to peace" after China imposed a security law that helped quash last year's huge democracy movement, as thousands of police were on standby to stamp out any fresh protests during National Day celebrations.

The People's Republic of China celebrates its founding on October 1 with a holiday and carefully choreographed festivities.

But in Hong Kong, it has become a day of grievance for those worried about authoritarian Beijing's intensifying crackdown against its opponents.

Protest has been effectively outlawed for most of this year and Beijing also imposed a strict national security law on the semi-autonomous business hub in June.

On Thursday morning, helicopters flying the Chinese and Hong Kong flags buzzed the harbor as Chief Executive Carrie Lam and senior mainland officials attended a ceremony in an exhibition center ringed by police and security barriers.

"Over the past few months, an indisputable fact in front of everyone is that our society has returned to peace," Lam said in her speech.

"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.

Last year, the 70th anniversary brought fierce clashes between protesters and police during seven straight months of democracy demonstrations that upended Hong Kong.

Authorities denied permission for a protest march this year, citing security concerns and an anti-coronavirus ban on more than four people gathering in public.

Citing the pandemic, authorities also suspended September local elections for a year -- one of the few occasions when Hong Kongers get to cast a vote.

A police source told AFP that 6,000 police officers had been drafted in to stop any protests -- double the contingency usually placed on reserve for days when the force expects demonstrations to occur.

'END ONE-PARTY RULE'

Close to the exhibition center where the ceremony was taking place, four members of the opposition League of Social Democrats shouted slogans such as "End one-party rule", surrounded by some 40 police officers. 

Officers were seen searching cars at a major tunnel under Hong Kong harbor on Thursday morning and maintained a high presence throughout the city.

This week, police said they had arrested five people on suspicion of inciting others to protest and commit violent acts.

The rally application was made by the Civil Human Rights Front -- a coalition that organized record-breaking marches last year.

The group is calling for the release of 12 Hong Kongers in mainland Chinese custody who were caught last month trying to flee protest-linked prosecutions.

Those 12 were trying to escape to Taiwan by boat but were intercepted by the Chinese coastguard and have since disappeared into the mainland's opaque judicial system.

For most of this year, protest has been all but impossible in Hong Kong.

On the rare occasions when demonstrations do bubble up, riot police and plain-clothes officers move quickly -- on one day last month nearly 300 people were arrested.

Over the last 16 months, more than 10,000 have been detained during protests and the courts are crammed with trials. Many prominent protest leaders are being prosecuted.

"Even if they try to arrest us, prosecute us and lock us up in prison, there is no reason for us to surrender," the city's most high-profile activist, Joshua Wong, told reporters on Wednesday.

NEW SECURITY LAW

The crackdown has been aided by the national security law that China imposed on the city in June. 

The broadly worded legislation criminalized expressing certain opinions, deepened the political chill seeping into the city and allowed mainland China's security apparatus to operate openly in Hong Kong for the first time.

Among the mainland officials taking the stage at Thursday's ceremony was Zheng Yanxiong, the head of a newly created national security office in the city. 

The security law has led to sanctions by the United States and condemnation by many other Western nations.

But Beijing and Hong Kong authorities say it is needed to restore stability. 

"The national security law will absolutely stop rabble-rousers in Hong Kong from having their capricious way," the Liaison Office, which represents China's government in Hong Kong, said this week. 

© Agence France-Presse