Anniversary of Hong Kong protests: activists cornered by China, Covid

As Hong Kong marks one year since the pro democracy protests broke out, much has changed. Authorities have quelled unrest under the cover of the new security law and covid-19. While activists are defiant, they are in a quandary as to the future of the movement.

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9th June marks the anniversary of Hong Kong protests, but a resumption of city-wide unrest is unlikely as activists reel from mass arrests, coronavirus bans on public gatherings and a looming national security law. While it has been one full year since the pro-democracy protests started in Hong Kong, activists find that China has pushed them into a corner, and their plight has been intensified owing to the Covid-19 pandemic raging across the globe.

Seven months of massive and often violent rallies kicked off on June 9 last year when huge crowds took to the streets to oppose a bill a lowing extraditions to mainland China.

Battles between police and protesters became routine, leaving in tatters the city’s reputation for stability, and a population divided.

Anniversary of Hong Kong protests: calls to rally being thwarted

Messaging groups used by protesters have called for people to come out in force on Tuesday evening, although locations will only be announced an hour ahead of time.

Read more: Hong Kong lawmakers vote Chinese security law despite strong condemnation

The tactic is a bid to thwart police, who now move swiftly against such gatherings to enforce anti-virus restrictions.

Student groups and unions have also announced plans to canvas members over possible strike action in coming days, but Hong Kong’s labour movement has limited influence.

“I don’t think the passion has subsided much, but the problem is that many actions are now not allowed in the current circumstances,” Leung Kai-chi, an analyst at the Chinese University, told AFP.

Beyond a withdrawal of the extradition bill, the protest movement’s core demands — such as universal suffrage and an inquiry into police tactics — have been rejected by the city’s leadership and Beijing.

Instead, China has unveiled plans to impose a more sweeping law — one that will bypass the city’s legislature entirely — banning subversion, secession, terrorism and foreign interference.

China says an anti-subversion law will only target “a small minority” and will restore business confidence.

New Hong Kong security law promulgated by China

In a speech on Monday Zhang Xiaoming, the deputy head of Beijing’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office likened the law to “anti-virus software”.

“Radical separatists have been mistaking the central government’s restraint and for bearance for weakness and timidity,” he said. “They have gone too far”.

“No person or organisation will succeed in intimidating the (Hong Kong) Government by extreme means,” the city’s pro-Beijing leadership said in a statement on Monday.

Read more: Hong Kong extends coronavirus lockdown amid protests over new Chinese law

Opponents fear the law will bring mainland-style political oppression to a business hub supposedly guaranteed freedoms and autonomy for 50 years after its 1997 handover from Britain.

Anniversary of Hong Kong protests: citizens defiant in face of new law

“First (Beijing) loses the hearts and minds of Hong Kong’s people and then it seeks to force them to be loyal,” said Kong Tsung-gan, an activist who has published three books on the protest movement.

“This is a long-term struggle, the Communist Party is upping the ante, and Hong Kong people will have to be willing to suffer and sacrifice much more than they have up to now to see their way through,” Kong said.

Over the last year around 9,000 people have been arrested and more than 1,700 people charged, but by the time the deadly coronavirus hit the city in January, the protest movement was already on the back foot.

Read more: Protest violence won’t work, leading Hong Kong activist says

The virus has made any protest effectively illegal, with emergency laws banning gatherings of more than eight people even though local transmissions have been virtually eradicated.

Still, protests have bubbled up again since the security law plans were announced — including tens of thousands defying a ban on a June 4 gathering to mark the anniversary of the Tiananmen crackdown.

What is the new law at the centre of the controversy?

The new controversy has been fuelled by China’s parliament authorising a new security law for Hong Kong, which observers and analysts say would effectively end the democratic character of the city-state.

The law will “guard against, stop and punish any separatism, subversion of the national regime, terrorist group activities and such behaviours that seriously harm national security”.

Read more: Ending of Hong Kong special status: what does it entail?

It would authorise Chinese lawmakers to directly enact long-delayed Hong Kong security legislation itself at a future date, rather than leaving it up to the territory’s administration.

China made clear it wanted the legislation passed after Hong Kong was rocked by seven months of massive and sometimes violent pro-democracy protests last year.

The new law would punish secession, subversion of state power, terrorism and acts that endanger national security, as well as allow mainland security agencies to operate openly in Hong Kong.

The law has been greeted by protests from within Hong Kong and from the international community, with observers stating that the law would effectively end the democratic nature of the territory.

AFP with additional input by GVS News Desk