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Hong Kong protests

Hong Kong protest anniversary muted by weary and wary public

Arrests discourage demonstrations, while activists seek new forms of dissent

Protesters gesture with five fingers, signifying the "Five demands - not one less" in a shopping mall during a protest in Hong Kong on June 9, 2020. A year on from the start of anti-government protests, the leader said that all sides should learn from the difficulties and challenging times over the past year.    © AP

HONG KONG -- Kelly, a 35-year-old homemaker, and her two daughters were among the 1 million Hong Kong citizens who took to the streets one year ago, protesting a bill that would have let people in the former British colony be extradited to mainland China for trial in the country's notoriously opaque judicial system.

One-seventh of the city's population braved the sweltering heat and marched for almost eight hours on June 9, 2019. They carried a sense of hope, symbolized by their white dress code, that the peaceful rally could pressure Hong Kong's government to rethink its proposal.

The protest eventually morphed into a greater call for democratic reform, and the monthslong standoff descended into violent clashes between police and black-clad protesters.

Hong Kong's government eventually withdrew the extradition bill. But China now plans to impose national security laws that many city residents consider a violation of the "one country, two systems" framework that grants freedoms to the territory.

Kelly finds it difficult to participate in mass demonstrations again.

"Even peaceful protesters have to bear legal risks nowadays," she said, adding that harsher tactics by police "are also holding people back. It is just impossible for families like us to take part."

Authorities have permitted no rallies since the coronavirus outbreak emerged in Hong Kong during January, even as the territory has largely stamped out new local infections in the past two months. Hundreds of protesters have been arrested on charges of illegal assembly in the past several weeks.

Hundreds of protesters gathered at several shopping malls around the city during lunchtime to mark the anniversary, chanting slogans and waving flashlights on mobile phones.

After dark, scores of protesters flooded into the central business district, responding to an online call to gather.  Dressed in black, they chanted, “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times." Roads through the district jammed and riot police fired pepper spray to disperse the crowd.

An alliance of more than 20 labor unions and student groups is also planning a referendum on Sunday, where thousands of members will decide whether to hold a general strike to protest the national security law.

Sam Yip Kam-lung, a pro-democracy district councilor, was arrested and injured his knee and his neck during a protest on May 24 -- the first mass demonstration after Beijing announced its plan to bypass the city's legislature and impose the national security laws.

Yip, who is still on a crutch, told the Nikkei Asian Review that people now "are less concerned about the actual anniversary date."

"People are still wondering what national security law would actually look like and trying to figure out a way to struggle under the new framework," he said, explaining the lack of an expected event for the anniversary of the Hong Kong protest.

The planned security protocols outlaw activities pertaining to "separatism, subversion, terrorism and foreign interference." Critics fear this will facilitate a further crackdown on dissent in Hong Kong. A recent survey by the Chinese University of Hong Kong shows that about 64% of interviewees oppose the move.

"For the past year Hong Kong people have made clear their peaceful demands for freedom and autonomy," said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. "But the authorities in Beijing and Hong Kong choose to respond with ever-greater repression and violence."

Activist Joshua Wong said the government is using bans on social gatherings to suppress the freedom of assembly.

"But I don't think Hong Kong's pro-democracy movement is losing its momentum," he said. "It's well manifested by thousands of people who defied the police ban and attended the Tiananmen massacre commemoration last week."

Gary Tang, an assistant professor at the Hang Seng University of Hong Kong, said the lack of protest permits, compounded with police brutality, are reducing attendants of street protests recently. "The momentum is bound to pick up again once people have a sense of urgency, say like when more details about the national security laws are announced," he said.

Protesters also are sustaining the movement in other ways, said Benson Wong, a politics lecturer in Hong Kong.

"The platforms of mass protests are getting pluralist," he said, citing the "yellow economic circle," in which supporters of the demonstrations buy only from "yellow" protester-friendly shops.

"It is normal to have ups and downs over street protests," Benson Wong said, adding that they are only part of the bigger movement.

Yet Hong Kong is poised for another summer of unrest as the security laws are expected to be enacted in the coming months. Civil Human Rights Front, the organizer behind last year's largest demonstrations, plans a mass rally on July 1, the anniversary of Hong Kong's handover from the U.K. to China.

"Remember June is to remember the history of Hong Kong's protests, a history of blood and tears," the group said in a statement. "We call upon all Hongkongers to preserve our memory, to resist evil law, and to fight hard for Hong Kong and our future."

Additional reporting by Nikkei staff writers Kenji Kawase and Coco Liu in Hong Kong. 

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