Director of the Chinese Liaison Office of Hong Kong, Luo Huining. Photo: Isaac Lawrence/AFP

Relatives of 12 Hong Kong fugitives detained on the Chinese mainland after trying to flee the financial hub petitioned Beijing’s office in the city on Wednesday, pleading for their loved ones to be returned.

The small gathering outside the Liaison Office came as its director said authorities needed to do more to instil patriotism in the city, which was rocked by seven months of huge and often violent democracy protests last year.

“As Chinese, patriotism is not a choice, it’s a duty and a righteous path,” Luo Huining, Beijing’s top official in the city, said at a banquet.

Luo was speaking ahead of Thursday’s National Day – the annual holiday that marks the founding of the People’s Republic of China.

Democracy supporters have been denied permission to march on Thursday.

Authorities cited security concerns and anti-coronavirus measures against more than four people gathering in public, measures which have made protest all but impossible for most of this year.

Five relatives of the detained Hong Kongers rallied as Luo spoke. Police did not break up the gathering and no official came to meet the group.

The Hong Kongers were detained in August by the Chinese coastguard as they tried to flee to Taiwan in a speedboat. They were all facing protest-linked prosecutions in Hong Kong.

The group has since disappeared into China’s notoriously opaque judicial system.

Relatives say they have been denied access to family-appointed lawyers and authorities have not given adequate updates on their health or well-being.

“I have no information of my son,” a man who identified himself as the father of detainee Cheng Tsz-Ho, said, weeping as he spoke. 

“They ask us not to badger them any more,” a woman who identified herself as the mother of Li Tsz-yin added.

“Why shouldn’t we when our family members have gone missing? We can’t send any medicine or do anything.”

Mainland authorities say the fugitives are being held on suspicion of “illegal border crossing” and must face mainland law before they are returned to face any earlier prosecution.

Political tensions are rising in Hong Kong ahead of National Day, a time of celebration for government supporters but a day of grievance for those worried about Beijing’s increased control over the city.

Last year’s celebrations – on the seventieth anniversary of the PRC’s founding – were marred by some of the most violent clashes of the months-long unrest.

Since then Beijing has imposed a strict national security law on the territory, a measure it says has returned stability.

While mass rallies on Thursday are unlikely, some online groups have called for flash-mob demonstrations in the evening.

Over the last 16 months more than 10,000 people have been arrested at protests and courts are crammed with trials.

On Wednesday a court granted bail to Joshua Wong, one of the city’s most prominent dissidents, following a recent arrest for his involvement in one of last year’s protests.

He currently faces three protest-linked prosecutions.

“Even if they try to arrest us, prosecute us and lock us up in prison, there is no reason for us to surrender,” he said outside court.