Tommy Walker reports from Hong Kong about why the fight for democracy rather than the battle against the Coronavirus is headline news in the former British colony.
Whilst the rest of the world is continuing to cope with the restrictions of COVID-19, Hong Kong faces is resuming a familiar battle. With cases of the Coronavirus on the island remaining low, the protests that rocked the city in 2019 are on the cusp of returning.
Last year – sparked by a controversial extradition bill – thousands of protestors marched in rallies several times a week, in their efforts to maintain the former British colony’s ‘one country two systems’ agreement and guard against creeping control from Beijing.
The emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic has deterred protestors but, with the virus seemingly under control and key anniversary dates approaching, tension is again rising.
Small demonstrations have started recently, albeit in a different way to those held last year. Groups of protestors have gathered in shopping malls and demonstrated through songs and chanting. Events such as ‘Sing with You’ include repeated chants of ‘five demands, not one less’ and the singing of ‘Glory to Hong Kong’, the anthem-soundtrack to the protests.
But these events have rarely gone without incident despite their relatively calm nature. With current social distancing laws in place, public gatherings are only allowed of eight people at a time and the Hong Kong authorities have repeatedly rejected demonstration applications for legal approval, citing social distancing and security concerns. Some events have taken place regardless, allowing police to catch protestors breaking social distancing laws or those around illegal assembly, leading to fines or even arrest.
Hong Kong has not been on lockdown because of the Coronavirus. With 1,051 cases and four deaths, calls were made for public and government services to re-open on 4 May. Four days later, previously closed businesses such as bars, restaurants and beauty parlours returned to normal. But, hours after they re-opened, lunch-time demonstrations started in Hong Kong’s IFC Central shopping mall. Police cordoned off areas, detained a student journalist and used pepper-spray to subdue members of the press.
On the same day, there were wild scenes in the Legislative Council, with opposing politicians clashing in a fight for control of the floor. Pro-Beijing politician Starry Lee literally took the chair before the meeting was due to begin as her allies and security staff guarded her. The Democrats were furious, which ultimately led to skirmishes within the chamber. Over the course of the afternoon, 10 pan-democratic law-makers were removed from the meeting unwillingly whilst one Democrat was injured and carried out on a stretcher.
Mothers Day – 10 May in Hong Kong – saw 230 arrests, according to police as familiar scenes continued. Initially, protestors had planned a march from Harbour City Plaza in the district of Tsim Shau Tsui, but police intervened and dispersed crowds, at one point by charging through the mall. After the police had gained some control of the situation, they arrested a 12-year-old boy who was a volunteer student reporter.
Shortly afterwards, in the district of Mongkok – one of Hong Kong’s hotly contested areas during protests – demonstrations started in the MOKO shopping mall. According to reports, one object was thrown at the police – believed to be a water bottle – which prompted an officer to respond by firing pepper ball rounds.
That evening, protestors remained in Mongkok, leading to some late-night controversy. Road barricades and small fires were built by hard-liners, whilst the police used pepper spray as melees eventually occurred including the press and one pro-democracy law-maker.
The police then controversially forced a group of local journalists to stop recording events. This later led to the Hong Kong Journalist Association (HKJA) and the Hong Kong News Executives Association (HKNEA) urging the force to “respect the freedom of the press”.
A few days later, on 14 May, the city’s leader Carrie Lam became the target of profanities with city-wide shopping mall demonstrations on her 63rd birthday.
The next day, a report published on the social unrest by the Independent Police Complaints Council (IPCC) cleared the Hong Kong Police of misconduct. This came despite months of accusations of police brutality. Responses by law-makers and activists have questioned the legitimacy of the report, citing the need for an international body to verify the events it covered.
Later that day, Sin Ka-Ho, a 21-year-old lifeguard, admitted to ‘rioting’ during a protest in June and was given a four-year jail sentence.
Law-makers will continue with a second reading of a proposed bill on 27 May to penalise anyone for insulting China’s national anthem, ‘March of the Volunteers’. Critics say that this law could spark further unrest in the city and further erode freedom of expression.
Whilst COVID-19 is still the crisis the rest of the world is facing, Hong Kong is one place in the world where the pandemic isn’t always headline news. With the anniversary dates of the pro-democracy movement approaching in June, Hong Kong is bracing itself for another summer of chaos as the battle against Beijing continues.