Police disperse Hong Kong protesters defying virus curbs

Activists are hoping to use Labour Day to muster numbers once more. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

HONG KONG (AFP, BLOOMBERG) - Hong Kong police deployed pepper spray to disperse protesters congregated at a shopping mall on Friday (May 1), as tensions in the city mount following a lull during the coronavirus outbreak.

A group of people gathered in New Town Plaza in the Sha Tin area of the city to take part in an activity dubbed "Sing with You".

The crowd of more than a hundred people, chanted slogans calling for the liberation of Hong Kong, according to footage livestreamed by local media.

Police asked the crowd to leave immediately, saying that they were violating a regulation banning groups of more than four people assembling, part of measures to curb Covid-19.

The latest protest followed a gathering on Sunday where police dispersed hundreds of people as well as a smaller lunchtime protest on April 24 that saw some 100 people rally at a luxury downtown mall.

It also came after the arrest last month of 15 prominent pro-democracy activists in connection with unauthorised assemblies last year - a move that was condemned by the US and several international organisations.

Beijing is growing increasingly assertive over its role in Hong Kong, looking to tighten its supervision over politics ahead of elections for the city's Legislative Council in September.

Protesters are hoping to regain momentum as the coronavirus shows signs of subsiding in the financial hub, which saw only four new cases in the past week.

The outbreak hit Hong Kong in January, effectively halting the pro-democracy protests that erupted last June over since-scrapped legislation allowing extraditions to the mainland.

Hong Kong police had warned protesters to stay away from any May 1 meetings or processions in a statement dated April 24, citing the risk of spreading the virus.

"The activities do not only increase the risk of infecting Covid-19 by participants and other people, but also pose serious threat to the lives and health of all citizens, jeopardising public safety and affecting the rights of others," the police said.

Officers ramped up their presence across the city on Friday, searching primarily young passengers at subway stations and surfacing in neighbourhoods where anti-government sentiment runs high.

The South China Morning Post reported 3,000 riot officers were on stand-by with rubber bullets and tear gas at the ready.

Some encrypted chat groups used by protesters fretted that public demonstrations while anti-virus laws were in place might lead to mass arrests.

The pro-democracy Labour Party said one local politician was arrested for allegedly gathering with more than four people on Friday morning.

During brief rallies in malls earlier this week, activists encouraged each other to keep 1.5 metres apart and stick to small groups of four.

Riot police quickly intercepted the flashmobs, forcing them to disband as either unlawful assemblies or gatherings that breached the anti-virus measures.


Three months ago, Hong Kongers were panic buying masks and hunkering down in cramped apartments as one of the first places outside mainland China to be struck by the coronavirus. But the fear has abated in recent weeks.

Health authorities have made impressive strides against the outbreak with just over 1,000 infections and four deaths.

For five of the last seven days, the city of seven million has reported no new cases and authorities plan to begin easing movement restrictions in the coming weeks.

But any relaxation would come at a time of renewed political tension - and as the anniversary of the start of last year's huge protests approaches.

Anger towards Beijing has been inflamed by the recent arrest of prominent moderate activists on charges related to the protests and senior Chinese officials announcing a greater say in how Hong Kong is run.

Last year's protests began in opposition to an eventually scrapped plan to allow extraditions to China's party-controlled courts.

But the movement soon snowballed into a popular revolt against Beijing's rule and a call for greater freedoms.

Hong Kong's government and Beijing have shied away from any reconciliation moves, holding fast against demands for an inquiry into police conduct, an amnesty for the 7,800 people arrested during protests and universal suffrage.

On Thursday night Hong Kong's unpopular chief executive said she feared unrest could return.

"Hong Kong might be able to survive the economic cold winter," she wrote, referencing the virus hammering business.

"But I am worried that we could not be able to stand the continuous political devastation and resurgent violence."

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