Thousands join Hong Kong New Year’s Day rally as independence activists complain of harassment
- Hong Kong National Front said its office in Tsuen Wan was broken into on New Year’s Eve
- Dozens of Hong Kong independence advocates show up at march
Thousands of protesters took to the streets of Hong Kong to air their grievances against the government in the traditional New Year’s Day rally, this time with pro-independence activists complaining of harassment and restrictions.
Dozens of activists calling for Hong Kong’s separation from China took part, but broke off from the main march and did not enter the public forecourt at the government’s headquarters in Admiralty where it ended, having been warned off in advance.
Pro-Beijing groups also marched separately in far smaller numbers and were involved in minor confrontations with their rivals in the larger rally.
The Civil Human Rights Front, which organised the annual event, estimated 5,500 people turned out to call for greater democracy and warn against “shrinking freedoms”, while police put the figure at 3,200 at the peak. Both estimates were roughly half of last year’s figures for the same event.
Around 30 independence advocates, most dressed in black and some wearings masks, raised flags and banners with “Hong Kong Independence” slogans during the march which started in Causeway Bay.
Some also waved Tibetan independence and Taiwan flags to demonstrate their support for separatist sentiments.
“We can still fly these flags only because there’s freedom of speech in Hong Kong,” one protester said.
The government had made it clear earlier that any display of banners or placards with slogans advocating Hong Kong independence would not be allowed in the forecourt at its headquarters dubbed “Civic Square”, where protests traditionally end.
While most independence activists stayed away, one protester was spotted at the forecourt holding a placard that read: “Only with two countries will there be two systems.”
Security guards tried to stop the man and a few others accompanying him, but they forced their way in after a bit of pushing and shoving, and were allowed to continue their protest without incident.
The government issued a statement at 11.45pm on Tuesday reiterating its zero tolerance policy. It said there were individual participants carrying placards “with slogans advocating independence” who ignored the advice of security guards and forced their way into the forecourt, causing confusion and two guards to fall.
“A government spokesman seriously condemns such an incident,” the statement read.
“The spokesman expressed deep regret that the organiser had not appealed to participants not to conduct any activity that contravenes the laws in force in the HKSAR, including the Basic Law.”
Authorities also stated that while officials were handling the march organiser’s application, they had sounded the reminder for pro-independence demonstrators not to display banners outside the government headquarters.
Earlier, Baggio Leung Chung-hang, spokesman for the Hong Kong National Front, said the pro-independence group had reported to police that its storage room in Tsuen Wan was broken into and some flags were stolen.
“They clearly did not come for valuables; I think they wanted to make a mess and scare us,” said the activist, who lost his newly won Legislative Council seat in 2016 for insulting China while taking his oath of office.
Another activist from the pro-independence Studentlocalism group, Tony Chung Hon-lam, said he had been followed and threatened by three masked men in the morning.
“They said, ‘You were beaten up recently, you shouldn’t continue’,” said Chung, who was attacked by an unknown man in Yuen Long last November.
Students Independence Union convenor Wayne Chan Ka-kui claimed two masked men had showed up at his door in the morning, but he did not file a complaint to police, unlike Chung.
Back at the march, some protesters demanded the resignation of Secretary for Justice Teresa Cheng Yeuk-wah over her decision not to prosecute former chief executive Leung Chun-ying after an investigation by anti-corruption officials into his business dealings.
Others complained of political persecution, and raised concerns about national security legislation and the impending national anthem law.
Activist Joshua Wong Chi-fung of student group Demosisto turned up to protest against the government’s plan for massive reclamation to build a new metropolis off Lantau Island.
Rally organiser Jimmy Sham Tsz-kit attributed the low turnout to low social activism in Hong Kong, tougher policing and interference from pro-Beijing groups.
One such group calling itself the Defend Hong Kong Campaign mobilised around 20 members to hold a rival march to oppose independence advocacy.
Minor scuffles also broke out at one point as another pro-Beijing group, Caring Hong Kong Power, was rebuffed by organisers when it tried to join the main rally.