The streets of Hong Kong are not as bustling as they once were, and distinctly calm, in fact, compared with a year ago, when hundreds of thousands marched in opposition to an extradition Bill and protesters first stormed the city’s Parliament building late in the night.
One year on, the anti-government protests, which peaked last year with unprecedented million-strong crowds, have mostly shrunk to thousands, at most.
Hundreds, many carrying umbrellas, marched in Central last night to mark the one-year anniversary of the day that a million people took to the streets to protest against the now-scrapped extradition Bill. Police dispersed the crowd within hours, with some arrests made.
Assistant Professor Lawrence Ho, a policing expert from The Education University of Hong Kong, said street confrontations and violence – both common features in the unrest last year – have been substantially reduced this year, due to the coronavirus pandemic and a more proactive policing strategy.
The movement has waned since January as the police are conducting mass arrests on the streets before protests even begin, Prof Ho said, adding that the prosecution of demonstration organisers has also unnerved people.
From June 9 last year till the end of last month, the police arrested 8,986 people aged between 11 and 84 at various protests for offences including rioting, illegal assembly, causing hurt to others and arson.
So far, 1,808 individuals have been charged. Of these, about half face up to 10 years in jail for rioting.
Police said two in five of those arrested are students.
While tensions were renewed after Beijing on May 22 announced it would bypass Hong Kong’s Parliament and directly enforce a national security law in the city, protests are likely to remain muted.
“We are not likely to have large-scale confrontation in this atmosphere, but public trust towards the government and police cannot be easily regained if no obvious step is taken in the political arena to respond to the allegation of police power abuse and partiality,” said Prof Ho.
The police have come under fire for using excessive force when dealing with protesters, but the allegations were dismissed by the police.
I do not believe that Hong Kong people welcome that sort of strike action when the greatest worry of many people is losing their jobs and facing difficulties in their daily living.
HK CHIEF EXECUTIVE CARRIE LAM, on a possible strike by labour union members against the planned national security law.
China’s move prompted United States President Donald Trump to announce on May 29 that Beijing had broken its word over Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy for 50 years after the 1997 handover, and the territory no longer warranted US economic privileges.
Beijing’s decision was viewed by some as an erosion of freedoms and drew calls online for protests.
Last weekend, an alliance of 23 labour unions across 20 industries said it would hold a referendum this Sunday among its thousands of members to ask if they would support a strike against Beijing’s plan for the new law.
Slamming the move, Chief Executive Carrie Lam yesterday said: “I do not believe that Hong Kong people welcome that sort of strike action when the greatest worry of many people is losing their jobs and facing difficulties in their daily living.”
Asked if she regretted the handling of the now-scrapped extradition Bill that sparked the unrest, Mrs Lam, speaking ahead of her weekly Executive Council meeting, replied that everyone needed to “learn a lesson”.
She also reassured Hong Kongers “very categorically” that Beijing’s policy towards the city has not changed, “and national security should be very much a core part of that”.
Her remarks come after a rare speech on Monday by Beijing official Zhang Xiaoming, who warned that the stronger the commitment to the new national security law, the higher the possibility of extending the “one country, two systems” arrangement beyond 2047.
In particular, Mr Zhang, the deputy director of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, said in an online seminar on the Basic Law that Hong Kong’s problem is a political one, and not economic, as Beijing previously insisted.
This U-turn in thinking points towards Beijing’s main concern – the Hong Kong Legislative Council (Legco) election expected in early September, said Associate Professor Alfred Wu of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.
He added: “I think Beijing’s goal is very clear. They want (the pro-establishment camp) to win the Legco election.
“In the last round (in 2016), the pro-democracy group was doing very well, but the government disqualified a number of them (after an oath-taking controversy), but I think this time round, they may just disqualify them at the start.”
The pan-democrats yesterday said contests to choose their candidates for the Sept 6 Legco election will be held on July 11 and 12.
Occupy Central founder Benny Tai, an organiser of the primaries, warned during the briefing that the new national security law could be used to disqualify pan-democratic candidates.