HONG KONG -- July 1 has been a public holiday in Hong Kong since 1997 to mark the handover of sovereignty from the U.K. to China, but it also has served as the day for the territory's people to hit the streets in protest on a wide range of issues.
The most notable protest occurred in 2003, when 500,000 people showed up to voice their opposition against the authorities' first attempt to impose national security legislation on Hong Kong. Pushed by the will of the people, the government eventually scrapped the plan.
But this year, the rally was banned by police, citing the pandemic, even though only three local coronavirus cases were detected in the past 28 days. On top of rejecting all requests for organized demonstrations, police sealed off Victoria Park, where all the past rallies originated.
Liauw Ka-kei, senior superintendent of the Hong Kong police, told reporters on Thursday that the lockdown of the park was due to some netizens inviting others to assemble in the afternoon. He stressed that the decision stemmed from concerns for the safety of citizens, to "prevent things from happening." Around noon, police started clearing the park, where many were simply enjoying their day off in the sun.
At least 19 people were arrested for "unlawful acts" by 9 p.m. local time, police said, and an officer was stabbed by a man near the park about an hour later. Both were injured, while local media reported that the attacker was declared dead at a hospital before midnight.
The police action to lock down the park on Thursday is similar to the one conducted June 4, the anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown in which unarmed students and citizens were killed by the Chinese military. Victoria Park has been the main venue for the June 4 candlelight vigils over three decades, but this year it was off limits, with thousands of police officers cordoning all entrances.
Again, police based the decision Thursday on the Public Order Ordinance, legislated in 1967 when the colonial British government was fighting waves of leftist riots, heavily influenced by China during the Cultural Revolution.
Since the national security law was imposed by Beijing on June 30 last year, room for Hong Kong people to express their views has rapidly narrowed. According to police, 117 people ages 15-79 have been arrested under the NSL as of June 27. Hong Kong authorities have also used various other enforcement tools to reign over pro-democracy movements and activists.
The Civil Human Rights Front, the main organizer of the annual July 1 march, did not even apply for a rally permit this year, since it was virtually declared illegal by police in April as violating the Societies Ordinance, enacted in 1911 mainly to register triads. On top of that, Figo Chan Ho-wun, its convener, was sentenced to 18 months in prison for participating in an unauthorized assembly on Oct. 1, 2019, when the Chinese Communist Party celebrated the 70th anniversary of its rule.
"Now, the right for peaceful assembly depends on the authorization of the police," Johannes MM Chan, professor and chair of public law at the University of Hong Kong's Law Department, said in an NSL forum on Wednesday.
The leading legal scholar noted that a new set of judicial procedures has been created in the territory since the imposition of the NSL.
"We have two forms of parallel criminal systems, one for NSL offenses and [one for] the others," he said. A number of offenses in the past year were "not just for NSL offense, but for offenses which [were] by analogy to NSL."
Chow Hang-tung, vice chairwoman of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, the organizer of annual June 4 vigil, was arrested Wednesday, apparently accused of "inciting others to knowingly join an unauthorized assembly" on July 1. She was informed by police that her detention was due to her Facebook post urging people to join in the rally on Thursday. She was arrested on June 4 as well.
According to the message relayed by lawyers who met with her on Thursday morning, Chow "never expected to spend both June 4 and July 1 this year in a police station."
"I am nothing more than one of tens of thousands of Hong Kongers who want their voices heard," said Chow, a longtime activist and a lawyer herself. "Arresting me won't succeed in shutting up everyone else."
Indeed, many people appeared on the streets in Hong Kong on Thursday. Ivan Law, a 28-year-old nurse, distributed a leaflet titled: "Police state? Say hell no!" to passersby. As police used the pandemic to ban the annual rally, he was with two other colleagues to keep his group under four, the social gathering rule implemented in the territory.
"I just wanted to show people that there is still someone standing up to tell the truth to the public," he told Nikkei Asia. Since the imposition of the NSL, he feels "so hopeless," but prepared about a thousand copies to carry his message across.
A separate group of three men marched on the sidewalk and handed out pamphlets. Wong, 44, and two others ages 38 and 22 were part of the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions, a regular attendee at the annual July 1 rally.
This demonstration to walk across the main streets in Hong Kong Island was disapproved by police.
"It is our right to express our views. We just wanted to act in a normal way," Wong told Nikkei Asia. The union organized about a dozen of these small groups to distribute about 5,000 pamphlets in the city.
The mass rally on July 1 and the June 4 commemoration are two of the most visible indications that the "One country, two systems" formula of governance -- promised under the Sino-British Joint Declaration in 1984 and the Basic Law, which embodies the spirit of the international agreement -- is actually in play.
But that is being lost, despite Chinese President Xi Jinping claiming once again on Thursday that Beijing is "comprehensively and accurately carrying out" those commitments, which are supposed to be in place at least until 2047.
In Hong Kong, John Lee, the chief secretary of the territory's government, repeated the same line as Xi regarding "one country, two systems" in his speech at the event celebrating the 24th anniversary of the handover and the centennial of the Communist Party.
Lee, who was promoted last week from security secretary to take the territory's No. 2 post, officiated all the ceremonies on Thursday as acting chief executive. Carrie Lam, the chief executive, was called in by Xi to join the events in Beijing.
Many citizens interviewed on Thursday by Nikkei Asia widely expect Lee to succeed Lam in one year when her first term ends, as he led the police force in executing the NSL and was instrumental in pushing Next Digital, the publisher of outspoken Apple Daily newspaper, out of business last week.
With Apple Daily no longer publishing, the front pages of major local newspapers on Thursday morning were completely filled with ads by the government and pro-Chinese businesses praising the Communist Party's 100th anniversary and the handover.
Tsang Kin-shing, a veteran pro-democracy activist, marched on Thursday with three other colleagues for a release of all political prisoners. They carried two hand signs, one blessing the centennial anniversary of the Communist Party and another "not to forget initial intensions," one of Xi's mantras. Tsang told Nikkei Asia that holding those words was a sarcastic message to Beijing, which withhold its promises of bringing democracy and guaranteeing various freedoms in China.
Chow, who remained detained by police as of Thursday night, said, "We must let them know Hong Kong people won't simply give up to fear," using the Chinese proverb of killing the chicken to scare the monkey.
"All those who are still persevering, hang in there!" she said.