Pro-democracy protesters observe social-distancing rules at a shopping mall rally in Hong Kong on April 29, 2020. Photo: AFP

With the Covid-19 epidemic now somewhat under control, protesters are returning to Hong Kong’s public spaces. Over the past week, two pro-democracy rallies have attracted hundreds of people.

On Wednesday, Hong Kong recorded no new cases of Covid-19 infections for the fourth day in a row. The number of infections in the city was unchanged at 1,037.

On Tuesday evening, several hundred protesters gathered at the shopping mall of the International Finance Center (IFC) in Central, chanting slogans including “five demands, not one less.”

The five demands were proposed last June as the Hong Kong government launched an extradition law that would allow the Chief Executive to transfer criminal suspects to the mainland. They included the withdrawal of the extradition bill, an independent inquiry into police misconduct, the release of all detained protesters, a retraction of the official characterization of the protests as “riots” and the implementation of universal suffrage.

The protesters, who stood 1.5 meters apart from each other to avoid Covid-19 infection, also sang Glory To Hong Kong, a song composed by netizens to support the anti-extradition protests and the city’s democratic movement.

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Police cordoned off part of the atrium in the IFC mall on April 28, 2020. Photo: RTHK

Hundreds of riot police were deployed to disperse the crowd. They cordoned off part of the atrium and claimed that people had violated the social-distancing rules that prohibit public gatherings of more than four people because of the Covid-19 pandemic. They said people would be fined HK$2,000 (US$258) each, regardless of whether or not they stood the required distance from other people.

A group of four people who were at the mall to dine were issued penalty bills, RTHK reported. One of them complained that the police had abused their power and misused the anti-epidemic rules. He said he would not pay the fine. Two other young people showed their bills to the media.

Two young people were fined for gathering at the IFC mall on April 28, 2020. Photo: RTHK

Hong Kong tycoon Jerome Lau Ting-sing was also given a penalty bill when he appeared at the IFC mall alone. He also said he would not pay the fine as the penalty was unreasonable. Netizens said the fine was nothing to Lau, who was wearing a T-shirt worth HK$10,000.

A performer disguised as North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong Un showed up at the mall with an inflatable “nuclear bomb.” Police did not interfere when shoppers took pictures of him.

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Ted Hui Chi-fung, a Democratic Party lawmaker, said the police had used the social-distancing rules as an excuse to violate the Hong Kong people’s right to assemble.

Prior to this, hundreds of people rallied in the Taikoo Shing shopping mall on Sunday evening. Riot police charged into the mall and accused the crowd of violating the social-distancing rules. An assistant of district councilor, Andrew Chiu Ka-yin, whose left ear was bitten off by an attacker in the mall last November, was injured when he was pushed down by the police.

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Kwok Ka-chuen, chief superintendent of the Police Public Relations Branch, said in a radio program on Tuesday that the force had consulted “related departments” before enforcing the social-distancing rules. He said people “shouldn’t lie to themselves,” and that it was clear that hundreds of people had gathered in the mall for the common purpose of protesting.

Hong Kong’s anti-government protest movement had generally cooled down between February and mid-April due to the Covid-19 outbreak, with just several rallies taking place in districts including Sheung Shui, Tuen Mun and Tseung Kwan O.

However, political tensions have been escalating since the police on April 18 arrested 14 pan-democrats for allegedly participating in “illegal assemblies,” which referred to unauthorized rallies held on August 18 and October 1 last year.

Some protesters said they were provoked by the lighter-than-expected sentence handed down to a pro-government man surnamed Hung, 50, who attacked three people with a meat cleaver in front of a “Lennon Wall” in Tseung Kwan O last August.

District Judge Kwok Wai-kin sentenced the man to 45 months in jail, rather than the typical six years. He praised the man’s “noble sentiment” amid the social unrest. He said he was a victim of the protests while aggressive protesters were a terrorist army.

Kwok has been barred from handling cases relating to the demonstrations from Monday.

Besides, pro-Beijing groups have called for disqualifying Civic Party lawmaker Dennis Kwok Wing-hang as he allowed pan-democrats to filibuster in the Legco’s House Committee. This came after the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office and the Liaison Office issued three statements on April 21 criticizing Kwok for alleged “misconduct in public office.”

On Wednesday, the police rejected an appeal filed by the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions, which was barred from organizing a rally for labor rights on Friday.

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Read: HK activists arrested over democracy rallies