Hong Kong police arrest dozens in bid to prevent China national day protest; leader Carrie Lam hails ‘return to peace’

Hong Kong riot police patrolling the route of a banned anti-government march arrested dozens of people on Thursday, stopping crowds from gathering as leader Carrie Lam hailed the city's "return to stability" at China national day celebrations.
Hong Kong marked China's National Day under the shadow of a growing crackdown on dissent.
Hong Kong marked China's National Day under the shadow of a growing crackdown on dissent.PHOTO: AFP

HONG KONG (REUTERS/AFP) - Hong Kong riot police patrolling the route of a banned anti-government march arrested dozens of people on Thursday (Oct 1), stopping crowds from gathering as Chief Executive Carrie Lam hailed the city’s “return to stability” at China's Oct 1 national day celebrations.

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 block traffic in another area of the city.

Protesters wanted to march against Beijing’s imposition on June 30 of a sweeping national security law and demand the return of 12 Hong Kong people who were arrested at sea by Chinese authorities in August as they tried to reach Taiwan.

Police had banned the protest, citing coronavirus-related restrictions on group gatherings and violence at previous marches.

Shoppers and passers-by still broke into pro-democracy chants sporadically, but there was no sign of large crowds.

“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.”

Officers, in their hundreds, conducted stop-and-search activities and sent away anyone deemed suspicious. Among those ordered to leave were a teenager playing protest songs on a woodwind instrument, a man dressed in black and holding a yellow balloon – colours associated with pro-democracy supporters – and a woman holding a copy of the Apple Daily anti-government tabloid.

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

“Over the past three months, the plain truth is, and it is obvious to see, that stability has been restored to society while national security has been safeguarded, and our people can continue to enjoy their basic rights and freedoms,” Lam said. 

She also praised China’s success in curbing the coronavirus and its economic recovery, calling it “a rare bright spot” which “has shown once again the shift of the global economic focus from the West to the East”.

Close to the exhibition centre where the ceremony was taking place, 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.” 

Groups of four are the largest allowed under coronavirus restrictions.

Police officers were seen searching cars at a major harbour tunnel on Thursday morning and maintained a high presence throughout the city.

Last year, China's 70th founding anniversary brought fierce clashes between protesters and police during seven straight months of democracy demonstrations that swept Hong Kong.

A police source told Agence France-Presse 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.

 
 
 

Late on Wednesday, police said they had arrested five people for inciting participation in illegal assemblies online.

NATIONAL SECURITY LAW

The rally application was made by the Civil Human Rights Front - a coalition that organised record-breaking democracy 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 within the crowds move quickly - on one day last month nearly 300 people were arrested.

Over the past 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 as he appeared for a court hearing for one of three prosecutions he faces.

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

The broadly worded legislation criminalised 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 Mr Zheng Yanxiong, the head of a newly created national security office in the city. 

It 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 on Tuesday.

"We firmly support the city's government and police in enforcing the law decisively to ensure that the vast majority of residents enjoy a joyful and harmonious festival."