How Beijing's influence is changing Hong Kong protests

Millions of Hong Kongers were supposed to vote in legislative council elections on Sunday. But in July, Hong Kong's Chief Executive Carrie Lam delayed the elections for one year under the guise of a coronavirus public health threat.

So instead of casting ballots, hundreds of pro-democracy demonstrators took to the streets of Hong Kong on Sunday, protesting what they think is an unjustified infringement on voting rights by city leaders who are afraid of losing an election.

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Thousands of riot police were stationed in Kowloon to counter the protesters. Isolated clashes between protesters and the police broke out, with protesters throwing umbrellas and water bottles and police responding by firing pepper spray pellets.

Several protesters were seen being wrestled to the ground by police, including a 12-year-old girl who was reportedly shopping for school supplies with her brother.

Prominent Hong Kong activist Joshua Wong shared a video of the small girl being tackled to the ground by a group of police officers in riot gear.

"In (a) police state under the national security law, you will face police brutality even though you are just going shopping," Wong wrote in the tweet.

Other protesters chanted the banned protest song: "Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times." One woman was arrested for chanting the slogan, as per the city's Beijing-imposed national security law.

By the end of Sunday evening, at least 289 people were arrested, including 270 who were charged with illegal assembly.

Several prominent activists, including Leung Kwok-hung, Raphael Wong and Figo Chan, were among those arrested. Activist Tam Tak-chi was arrested for "sedition in public or on social media."

Protesters 'ignored warnings'

A Hong Kong government spokesperson said protesters ignored warnings from the police and used debris to block off several roads. Authorities also accused some protesters of throwing objects at police and chanting pro-independence slogans.

"Hong Kong police will continue to fulfil their duties and swiftly arrest those who have violated the law," the government spokesperson said.

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China's liaison office also condemned the demonstration on the original date of the legislative council election.

"A small group of anti-China rioters tried to incite opposition to the government's decision to postpone the legislative council election, which is an act that defied existing laws and the national will," the liaison office said in a statement.

Hong Kong protesters face new laws

Although this weekend's demonstrations are similar to what Hong Kong experienced last year, experts pointed out that the legal landscape has changed dramatically.

"Last year, there were still cases in which protests were authorized, whereas none have been recently," Jeff Wasserstrom, a historian of modern China at the University of California, Irvine, told DW.

"The reason given has been the pandemic, but COVID-19 is not raging in Hong Kong right now. The police are turning a blind eye toward other kinds of gatherings," Wasserstrom said, adding that the number of permitted protests will be far fewer in the future.

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Sunday's protest was relatively small. However, the number of arrests was similar to that seen during last year's large-scale demonstrations.

Galileo Cheng, the social affairs executive for the Hong Kong Catholic Institution Staff Association, told DW that those who were still willing to join yesterday's protest, despite the national security law and the ban on public gathering, were well-prepared and more aggressive than normal protesters.

"Until a permitted protest would be able to take place, such impromptu rallies could still happen if someone is willing to come out and organize one," Cheng said, adding that many peaceful protesters have been deterred by the pandemic and new rules not permitting demonstrations.

Expanded grounds for arrests

Since Beijing imposed the national security law on Hong Kong in July, Hong Kong police have widened criteria for arrest.

Several prominent pro-democracy figures have been targeted, including media tycoon Jimmy Lai and former Demosisto member Agnes Chow.

Wasserstrom said the national security law has given Hong Kong authorities more power to arrest people.

"There was already a sense last year that the police felt few limits on their actions, as the chief executive refused to criticize their actions or carry out an impartial investigation of the police," Wasserstrom said.

"Now there is a strong sense of a police force that feels it has carte blanche to do whatever it pleases. An important test will be how long a degree of judicial independence remains and how long the press is able to report," he added.

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Judicial independence and press freedom distinguish Hong Kong from cities in China's mainland. But Wasserman said that the gap is increasingly narrowing.

Space for protest shrinking

The national security law has started to affect how far people are willing to go in criticizing Hong Kong's government, whether it is stores removing protest materials, self-censorship on social media, or the reduced scale of protests.

However, Galileo Cheng pointed out that yesterday's protests featured slogans and signs that have been deemed illegal under the law.

"Protesters who came out seemed to have adapted to how the government and police enforce the national security law and decided to take the risk," Cheng said.

China historian Wasserstrom said that although Beijing has been trying to transform Hong Kong into a mainland-style Chinese city, Hong Kongers have been able to push back.

"They have even won some victories, stopping efforts to curtail local freedoms," he said, adding that protest has become more complicated.

"The space for resistance is shrinking and the punishments are getting more severe. Lately, it has been harder to win even the smallest victories. Subtler forms of resistance may well become the norm; small ways of showing an unwillingness to accept the loss of things that make Hong Kong distinctive."