July 1 march

Organisers of Hong Kong’s annual July 1 march running out of time as venue fallback plan rejected

Civil Human Rights Front asked police for permission to use pedestrian areas in Causeway Bay for gathering point but was refused

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 12 June, 2018, 7:03pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 12 June, 2018, 10:23pm

The organisers of Hong Kong’s annual July 1 protest march are running out of time to secure a venue for this year’s event after authorities vetoed their fallback plan for marchers to gather at shopping areas near Victoria Park in Causeway Bay, citing security concerns.

The police instead asked Civil Human Rights Front, an umbrella group of 50 pro-democracy groups, to start the march at the park’s central lawn but it refused.

The Leisure and Cultural Services Department, which is responsible for allocating the venue, earlier turned down the front’s application to use the Victoria Park soccer pitches as the starting point for the march, instead allowing a pro-Beijing association to hold an event on the site.

The front then applied to the police for a notice of no objection for the march to begin at either the pedestrian precinct at East Point Road or Great George Street.

But a force insider said that using these two areas would not be possible as they could not hold more than 3,000 people. The force also expected the streets would be more crowded than usual as many residents and tourists would flock there for shopping on July 1, a public holiday.

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“It would be hard for first responders to arrive at the scene of an emergency if they blocked the eastbound traffic on [nearby] Hennessy Road, which is a main artery on Hong Kong Island,” the source said.

“Past experience showed that the number of participants grew faster than the marching speed. This would block and shut down the areas.”

The front earlier forecast that at least 1,500 people would gather at the starting point, but the insider said that number was hugely underestimated as police records showed that about 11,000 protesters left the park when the march started last year and in 2016. The number stood at 91,000 in 2014.

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The force had suggested the organisers use the central lawn of the park as a starting point.

The front’s deputy convenor, Au Nok-hin, a pro-democracy lawmaker, said they might consider starting the march at government headquarters in Admiralty and then heading back to Victoria Park as another backup plan. But he conceded the police were unlikely to approve that option.

“We are doing what we can to find a suitable venue,” Au said. “We will not drop the march anyway. It is for the police to consider which of our plans they would like to approve.”

He accused the police of having political considerations in rejecting the pedestrian areas plan.

“We have written to the police, saying we shall not accept their suggestion of using the park’s central lawn. The area is too small. If the police are genuinely concerned about public security, they should not have asked us to use the central lawn,” Au said, adding that he hoped he could meet the force for further discussions.

The police source said that Au’s latest idea would not be possible either as it would also block the main artery and that any new plans would need police approval.

The front had in the past been allowed to use the park’s six soccer pitches to start its march. But last year, the department allocated the pitches to the pro-Beijing Hong Kong Celebrations Association for a science exhibition and activities to mark the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to Chinese rule. The front started the 2017 march at the central lawn.

The department this year again gave the association, a charity that comprises some 40 groups, the go-ahead to use the pitches to organise handover celebratory events. As a fallback plan, the front asked for permission to use the pedestrian precinct.

Au argued: “If we are to use the central lawn, the protesters will have to pass through the pro-Beijing groups to leave the park. I wonder if the police think such an arrangement is better than separating the two groups by allowing us to use the area outside the park. Last year’s experience showed that such an arrangement was unsatisfactory and caused overcrowdedness.”

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The July 1 march has become an annual ritual on the public holiday that marks the anniversary of Hong Kong’s return from British to Chinese rule. It caught international attention in 2003 when half a million people took to the streets in protest at a planned national security law. The government backed down and shelved the bill.

Last year, the front claimed more than 60,000 people took part in the march from the park to government headquarters. It was a two-year low. Police put the peak turnout at about 14,500 – the lowest number since official records of the turnout began in 2003.