HONG KONG - A security lockdown in Hong Kong by 10,000 police officers did not deter pro-democracy protesters from making their voices heard on Friday (June 30) even as Chinese President Xi Jinping called for Hong Kongers to "believe in China".
At least three activist groups held separate demonstrations on the eve of Hong Kong's 20th handover anniversary celebrations, when Mr Xi will inaugurate the fifth administration of the Special Administrative Region under Mrs Carrie Lam.
At 5.30pm, the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China held a protest march calling for Mr Xi to release Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo, who has been jailed since 2009 for subversion and is now terminally ill with liver cancer.
For two hours, about 30 protesters walked in loops in Wan Chai district where Mr Xi is staying for his three-day visit and where the main celebration events would be held.
Protesters held up photos of Mr Liu and chanted slogans demanding his release.
One protester Ms Agnes Lau, 35, told The Straits Times: "Tomorrow, the President will leave Hong Kong right after the inauguration ceremony. This is our last chance to have our voices heard."
Another protester who gave his name as only Mr Wong, 40, said: "It's an opportunity for us to let him(the President) know what we think. We are demanding the release of Liu and his wife and these two people are symbols of what's going on in China.
"All prisoners of conscience should be freed. Lawyers who took on cases for those prisoners of conscience should also be freed and free from harassment. It's a matter of justice, simple decency. This is not what civilised country do."
Mr Liu, a pro-democracy scholar, is currently on medical parole for cancer treatment. Activists around the world have been demanding for his release so that he could seek treatment overseas.
Later in the evening, Civil Human Rights Front held a rally with the same message, near the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre where Mr Xi was attending a variety show and a banquet attended by lawmakers and business figures including property tycoon Li Ka Shing. Supporters of the rally were kept apart and some of them were confined to a small area, as police outnumbered the supporters and managed to block the protesters from forming a larger gathering.
"Police have been trying to shield Xi from the protesters. Some of them were arrested even before he arrived," said one protester who gave his name as only Mr Chan, 39, an IT officer.
Tensions had flared Friday afternoon as democracy campaigners and pro-China supporters swore and shouted at each other near the convention centre, with police separating the two sides.
At the banquet, Xi praised Hong Kong for its role in China’s economic development, and told Hong Kongers to believe in themselves and China.
“Hong Kong has developed from a small unknown fishing village into a large international metropolis, forged by the hard work of generations of Hong Kongers,” he said. “When the country does well, Hong Kong will do even better,” he added, before raising a glass of red wine for a toast.
High-profile pro-independence activist Chan Ho Tin, who had planned to hold a rally to "mourn" the handover anniversary at the Clock Tower attraction in Tsim Sha Tsui (TST), said he was warned by the police he would be arrested if he attempted to set up a rally there.
A statement issued by the Hong Kong National Party (HKNP) said the party had changed its rally location to the East TST Centenary Garden as the Clock Tower has been sealed off. But they were stopped by the police who warned that they could be arrested, when they tried to set up a stage.
Earlier on Friday, more than a dozen pro-democracy activists held a rally to condemn the 30-hour long detention of 26 activists including prominent figures Joshua Wong and Nathan Law while Mr Xi toured the city. The activists said they were held for nearly 30 hours and the last person was released at about 5am on Friday.
On Saturday (July 1), thousands of protesters are expected to hit the streets in an annual pro-democracy march to mark the handover of the city to China from Britain.