Dozens of people on Sunday joined Hong Kong’s first authorised protest since the lifting of major COVID-19 restrictions under unprecedentedly strict rules, including wearing a numbered badge around their necks.
The rules set out by the police, who cited security reasons, came as the financial hub was promoting its return to normalcy after years of anti-virus controls and political turmoil. During the pandemic, protests were rare due to COVID-19 restrictions. In addition, many activists have been silenced or jailed after Beijing imposed a national security law following massive protests in 2019.
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Critics say the city’s freedom of assembly that was promised to Hong Kong when it returned to China from Britain in 1997 has been eroded. Sunday’s demonstration against the proposed reclamation and construction of rubbish-processing facilities was the first police-approved march of its kind after the city scrapped its mask mandate and social distancing limits.
But organisers had to comply with police requirements such as taking measures to ensure the number of participants would not exceed the expected turnout of 100 people and asking for proof of a reasonable excuse from protesters who wore masks during the event.
At the height of the 2019 anti-government movement, Hong Kong government invoked emergency powers to ban masks from public gatherings so it can identify protesters whom officials accused of illegal acts.
On Sunday, about 60 people expressed their opposition to the plans in Tseung Kwan O, a residential and industrial idea, and had to walk in a cordoned-off moving line in the rain amid heavy police presence. Theresa Wang described the new restrictions as a bit weird but said they were still acceptable because the city was adjusting to the new Hong Kong.
“I’m not happy but we have to accept it. We have to accept what is deemed legal now,” the 70-year-old retiree said. Protester Jack Wong said he would prefer not to wear the badge printed with a number. The requirement aims to prevent lawbreakers from joining the march, said the police earlier. “But if it is a requirement, what can I say? I prefer not to comment further. You know what I mean,” he said.
In granting its approval, police also requested that organisers ensure there would not be any acts that might endanger national security, including displaying anything seditious.
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Cyrus Chan, one of the march’s organisers, said demonstrators had communicated with police on their promotional materials and slogans. Officers had told him that participants should not wear all-black outfits, he said. Protesters commonly wore black during the 2019 protests.
“It’s definitely strict. We hope this is just an individual case. We hope to show them that Hong Kong society has the ability to have peaceful marches and they do not need to set that many conditions to restrict us,” he said.
Earlier this month, the Hong Kong Women Workers Association planned a march to call for labour and women’s rights, but cancelled it at the last moment without specifying the reason.
Days later, the association said on its Facebook page that police had invited it for further meetings after granting it the approval and that it had tried its best to amend the agreement. But it still could not launch the protest as it had wished, it wrote at that time.
A pro-democracy group separately said national security police had warned four of its members not to participate in the association’s march.
(With Agency inputs)