At least 87 people were arrested in Hong Kong during angry confrontations between small groups of pro-democracy protesters and droves of riot police on China’s National Day holiday.
The Chinese-ruled city had been bracing for chaos after a proposed march by one of the largest anti-government groups, the Civil Human Rights Front, was denied permission. Last year’s National Day marked one of the most violent moments of the civil unrest that roiled the city for months when the police opened fire with a live round for the first time.
This year at least 6,000 police officers outnumbered a few hundred protesters. The pandemic and a draconian national security law introduced in June, which can impose life sentences for subversion, have had a chilling effect on the protest movement that brought millions to the streets last summer to demand free and fair elections and greater civil rights.
However, despite the dwindling numbers the crowd was still defiant and seething in central Hong Kong’s major shopping district as the riot police pulled pedestrians aside and searched their bags trying to identify pro-democracy supporters.
“I’m in my 50s but I can’t see any hope for Hong Kong’s future. I feel pity for the next generation,” said one 51-year-old protester who identified himself as Mr Cheng.
He had been holding a yellow balloon when he was ensnared inside a police cordon.
“Yellow is the colour representing Hong Kong’s fight for democracy. This yellow balloon is a symbol of people’s continued effort in safeguarding Hong Kong, preventing it from changing into a mainland city that loses humanity and freedom. Even walking on the streets alone can attract police officers. When did this become a crime? Hong Kong under a cloud of fear thanks to the tyranny,” he added.
Protesters, who wanted to show support for 12 Hong Kong citizens detained in China after trying to escape to Taiwan by sea, moved swiftly and fluidly to evade arrest. But at times they broke into spontaneous protest chants or shouted taunts at the police, prompting riot officers to charge into the crowd.
Some forms of protest were more subtle. Creative demonstrators left a Bluetooth speaker on a street corner playing an unofficial protest anthem - now banned under the new law - before it was removed by officers.
Four district councillors were reportedly among those arrested, on charges of unauthorised assembly. The police said many were held on suspicion of participating in an unauthorised assembly, while some were accused of possessing offensive weapons. They said they were looking for two men who threw petrol bombs to bloc traffic in another area of the city.
Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam hailed the city’s “return to peace” at China national day celebrations.
“Over the past few months, an indisputable fact in front of everyone is that our society has returned to peace,” Ms Lam said.