Hong Kong on Tuesday marks one year since pro-democracy protests erupted, as mass arrests, coronavirus bans on gatherings and a looming national security law keep a lid on any return to city-wide unrest.
Seven months of massive and often violent rallies kicked off on June 9 last year when as many as one million people took to the streets to oppose a bill allowing extraditions to mainland China.
As the government dug in, battles between police and protesters became routine, leaving the city’s reputation for stability in tatters and swathes of the population in revolt against Beijing’s rule.
Messaging groups used by protesters have called on people to hold flashmob gatherings in the evening, although locations will only be announced an hour ahead of time.
The tactic is a bid to thwart police, who now move swiftly against such gatherings to enforce anti-virus restrictions.
Student groups and unions have also announced plans to canvass members over possible strike action in coming days, but Hong Kong’s labor movement has limited influence.
City leader Carrie Lam, an unpopular pro-Beijing appointee, was peppered with questions from reporters on Tuesday about the unrest under her tenure.
“Hong Kong cannot afford such chaos,” she said, adding all sides needed to “learn lessons.”
Residents needed “to prove that Hong Kong people are reasonable and sensible citizens of the People’s Republic of China” if they want their freedoms and autonomy to continue, Lam added.
Under a deal signed with Britain ahead of the 1997 handover, authoritarian China agreed to let Hong Kong keep certain freedoms and autonomy for 50 years.
Protests over the last decade have been fuelled by fears those freedoms are being prematurely curtailed, something Beijing denies.
Analysts say the space for Hong Kongers to voice 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 in the current circumstances,” said Leung Kai-chi, an analyst at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK).
“People are waiting for a chance, they of course want to come out again … but they will not do that carelessly,” added Francis Lee, head of CUHK’s journalism school.
Beyond a withdrawal of the extradition bill, the protest movement’s core demands – such as universal suffrage and an inquiry into police tactics – have been rejected by the city’s leadership and Beijing.
Instead, China has unveiled plans to impose a more sweeping law – one that will bypass the city’s legislature entirely – banning subversion, secession, terrorism and foreign interference.
China says an anti-subversion law will only target “a small minority” and will restore business confidence.
International companies like HSBC and Standard Chartered, which are hugely reliant on access to mainland markets, have issued supportive statements in recent days.
In a speech on Monday, Zhang Xiaoming, the deputy head of Beijing’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, likened the law to “anti-virus software.”
“Radical separatists have been mistaking the central government’s restraint and forbearance for weakness and timidity,” he said.
Opponents fear the law will bring mainland-style political oppression to the business hub.
Anti-subversion laws are routinely used on the mainland to stamp out dissent.
“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.
“This is a long-term struggle, the Communist Party is upping the ante, and Hong Kong people will have to be willing to suffer and sacrifice much more than they have up to now to see their way through,” Kong said.
Over the last year about 9,000 people have been arrested and more than 1,700 people charged, but by the time the deadly coronavirus hit the city in January, the protest movement was already on the back foot.
The virus has made any protest effectively illegal, with emergency laws banning gatherings of more than eight people even though local transmission has been virtually eradicated.
Still, protests have bubbled up again 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.