COVID-19 SPECIAL

Summer of dissent bubbling in Hong Kong as fears over the coronavirus subside

RIot police stand guard in a mall in Hong Kong on April 28, 2020.
RIot police stand guard in a mall in Hong Kong on April 28, 2020.PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

HONG KONG - As the weather starts to sizzle in Hong Kong, tensions are also bubbling as protests are expected to make a comeback after three months of calm following the coronavirus outbreak in December.

In the past week or so, netizens, who have been largely lying low since the start of the pandemic, started circulating messages on social media and online, urging people to join planned demonstrations in the coming months.

One such call is for protests on Friday (May 1) at 2pm in at least five locations - Causeway Bay, Mong Kok, Kwun Tong, Tai Po and Sai Ying Pun, where Beijing's liaison office is located.

Another message now making its rounds online is for people to mark the one year since hundreds of thousands surrounded the Legislative Council on June 12 to block the second reading of the now-shelved extradition Bill.

Clashes between protesters and the police broke out that day, with the latter firing rounds of tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse violent and peaceful demonstrators.

Large scale protests are also in the works for June 4 to mark the 31st anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown, and the annual July 1 march that marks the 1997 handover of Hong Kong back to China.

The Confederation of Trade Unions' (CTU) application for its annual procession on Friday was denied by the police despite reassurance by its chairman Carol Ng, who said the march will be done in line with existing social distancing rules.

On Wednesday, Ms Ng said street booths will be set up across Hong Kong to mark Labour Day after it failed in its appeal against the authorities' ban on a proposal for a march - an annual tradition that has spanned more than 30 years.

The government has extended till May 7 the existing social distancing measures, including restricting gatherings in public to not more than four people and tables in eateries to be at least 1.5m apart.

The Civil Human Rights Front (CHRF), which organised some of the city's biggest marches that drew record turnouts last year, is gearing up for the annual July 1 march.

Its vice-convenor, Mr Eric Lai, said: "We are applying for the letter of no objection for the July 1 rally and so far, there's been no response from the police.

 
 
 

"But the police have banned the CTU's application for letter of no objection and we are cautious of what will happen."

Asked about the possible turnout, particularly as the pandemic has been cited by the authorities as a safety concern for denying protest applications, Mr Lai said: "From our experience, all the political incidents (that take place in the lead up to the event) will shake the results of the protests, so we never know how many people will turn up."

He pointed out that public opinion polls continue to show low levels of public trust and confidence in the government, adding that protesters continue to press for their demands, including accountability for police brutality and universal suffrage.

The organiser of the annual June 4 candlelight vigil at Victoria Park, the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, could apply for permission in May.

Lunchtime protests and singing of protest anthems in malls - common features of the anti-government movement in the second half of last year - have returned in recent weeks after having been suspended since the start of the outbreak.

About 100 people gathered on Tuesday night at the IFC mall in Central, while around 300 protesters gathered inside Cityplaza shopping centre in Taikoo Shing on Sunday.

Both events were met with a huge riot police presence, where people were stopped and searched, and black-clad participants and journalists fined for breaching the four-person rule.

Justice Secretary Teresa Cheng had on Monday dismissed suggestions that the government's ban on gatherings is being abused by the police in a bid to clamp down on protests.

 
 
 

But last year's summer of dissent looks set to make a comeback, as pan-democrats had earlier vowed to stage protests, whether or not they get approval from the police.

The chairman of the pro-government Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions (FTU) Wong Kwok noted that Hong Kong had suffered eight months of violence since mid-2019, led by anti-government protesters.

The city has also been hit by the Covid-19 pandemic, which has jeopardised the economy and people's livelihoods.

"Unemployment has risen in recent months and our members who have lost their jobs have to rely on government subsidies to get by," said Mr Wong, who added that in recent times, "there are signs that young protesters are encouraged to again act violently". "These need to be stopped to avoid the risk of further social catastrophes".

The FTU had earlier submitted an application to hold a rally on Friday but later withdrew it due to concerns over virus transmission.

The rise of protests comes on the back of what the city's health experts said was the stabilisation of the outbreak in Hong Kong which would allow for the social distancing measures to be eased.

The number of new confirmed Covid-19 cases slid from double digits at the start of the month to single digits in the past two weeks.

And for the fourth straight day on Wednesday, Hong Kong recorded no new case, with the total tally at 1,037 and four deaths.

 
 
 

Still, Associate Professor Sing Ming of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology believes the social distancing rules and tougher policing will put a cap on the number of protesters.

"If we have a quick look at what happened last night in one or two malls and what happened in Taikoo Shing, you will find that the police have taken a very hostile stance toward any of those gatherings that were merely (activities where people were) singing songs.

"These kinds of very stern treatment of protesters will continue into May, and probably the traditionally large rallies on May 1 will be cancelled."