Anniversary protests as Hong Kong democracy movement faces triple threat

Xinqi Su and Jerome Taylor
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Defiant crowds a few-thousand strong gathered evening in the city's upmarket Central district to march and chant slogans

Defiant crowds a few-thousand strong gathered evening in the city's upmarket Central district to march and chant slogans (AFP Photo/ANTHONY WALLACE)

Several thousand demonstrators marched in Hong Kong on Tuesday evening -- defying authorities a year after huge pro-democracy protests erupted -- as the movement struggles in the face of arrests, coronavirus bans on crowds and a looming national security law.

Seven months of massive and often violent rallies kicked off on June 9 last year when as many as a million people took to the streets to oppose a bill allowing extraditions to mainland China.

As city leaders dug in, battles between police and protesters became routine, leaving the financial hub's reputation for stability in tatters and swathes of the population in open revolt against Beijing's rule.

A year later, protesters are on the back foot with Beijing planning to impose a sweeping law banning subversion, secession, terrorism and foreign interference.

Anti-virus measures also forbid more than eight people gathering in public.

Small rallies still flare up, however.

Defiant crowds a few thousand strong gathered on Tuesday evening in the city's upmarket Central district to march and chant slogans.

Riot police were quick to charge and fire pepper spray to disperse the crowds in a series of small cat and mouse confrontations, with at least 25 arrests made throughout the evening.

"We have been through a lot," a 23-year-old protester who gave his first name as Michael, told AFP.

"But I still have to show my position, come out and tell the regime that we haven't forgotten."

Earlier Tuesday, organisers of last year's huge rallies called on the government to lift legitimate protest restrictions on a city now largely free of coronavirus infections.

"This movement has not finished," said Jimmy Sham of the Civil Human Rights group, which espouses non-violence.

But city leader Carrie Lam, an unpopular pro-Beijing appointee, said the protests must end.

"Hong Kong cannot afford such chaos," she said, adding residents needed to prove Hong Kong people "are reasonable and sensible citizens of the People's Republic of China" if they want their freedoms and autonomy to continue.

- 'Forced loyalty' -

Under a deal signed with Britain ahead of the 1997 handover, China agreed to let Hong Kong keep certain freedoms and autonomy for 50 years.

But protests over the last decade have been fuelled by fears those freedoms are being prematurely curtailed, something Beijing denies.

Analysts say the space for dissent has rapidly diminished in the last year.

"I don't think the passion has subsided much, but the problem is that many actions are now not allowed," Leung Kai-chi, an analyst at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), told AFP.

Beyond a withdrawal of the extradition bill, the informal and largely leaderless protest movement's core demands -- such as universal suffrage and an inquiry into police tactics -- have been rejected.

China's planned national security law -- which will bypass the city's legislature once written -- has pushed anxieties further.

Opponents fear the law will bring mainland-style political oppression to the business hub given similar anti-subversion laws are routinely used to stamp out dissent over the border.

"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.

Beijing says the law will only target "a small minority" and will restore business confidence.

Over the last year, around 9,000 people have been arrested and more than 500 people have been charged with rioting -- facing up to 10 years in jail if convicted.

The protest movement was already on the back foot before emergency coronavirus laws banned gatherings of more than eight people.

Still, demonstrations have resurfaced 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 1989 Tiananmen crackdown.