HONG KONG—Crowds of protesters massed in one of Hong Kong’s densest commercial districts, challenging the postponement of legislative elections as the city is brought more firmly under the control of mainland China.
The gathering Sunday was one of the biggest demonstrations of opposition to the government since China imposed a draconian national-security law on June 30. Plans for the protest had circulated earlier in the week on social media, and police were ready with a large presence.
Reflecting the risks, the protesters were somewhat camouflaged by dressing as ordinary shoppers, rather than in black, as they did last year. As police looked on, they would chant familiar slogans such as “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times,” and some threw items such as water bottles and umbrellas at police as they made arrests or regrouped at an intersection.
But in the large crowd, and with everyone wearing masks because of the coronavirus, it was difficult to be sure who was chanting and who was shopping.
Police in riot gear who had descended on the Mong Kok neighborhood charged into the crowd to grab suspected protesters, occasionally firing pepper balls or pepper spray to clear the way. For several hours Sunday afternoon, groups of very young Hong Kong residents stood detained on street corners.
Police said 289 people had been arrested. Attempted arrests devolved into chaotic foot races, with riot police in green jumpsuits charging though crowds. As night fell, the situation played out under the bright lights of signs on stores, many of which remained open.
For the protesters, arrest carries enormous risk. The new security law is aimed at quashing a year of pro-democracy unrest. Under it, broadly defined crimes such as subversion and secession carry sentences of up to life in prison. Hong Kong authorities say chants that advocate independence from China could violate the law.
“I am here because we want to have our vote,” said a woman in a white T-shirt who declined to give her name. “I don’t think protest should be illegal.”
The legislative election was originally scheduled to take place Sunday, and pro-democracy candidates were poised to make important gains, even though the election process is structured to ensure a pro-Beijing majority.
But in late July, the city’s deeply unpopular China-backed leader, Carrie Lam, postponed the vote by one year. Mrs. Lam cited health concerns around conducting large public events during a pandemic. While the city was experiencing a surge in cases at the time, many in Hong Kong say the health concerns were a pretext.
The current legislature will serve another year, though some pro-democracy lawmakers are considering boycotting.
Concerns about the coronavirus, as well as the national-security law, have tamed public demonstrations for months. Reports of new cases have been falling for weeks, however, with Hong Kong reporting 15 locally transmitted cases on Sunday. Daily case counts haven’t jumped dramatically since a citywide testing program began last week.
The security law has raised questions about whether Hong Kong retains the high degree of autonomy it was supposed to enjoy after Britain returned the colony to China in 1997. No cases under the law have been adjudicated, but people in the opposition and some in the legal community have said some of the arrests and violations asserted by the government appear to criminalize speech and cut against the free press.
The law has produced some dramatic scenes, including the arrest of the city’s most prominent pro-democracy newspaper publisher, Jimmy Lai, on suspicion of breaching the law. Reflecting the severity of the law, a group of 12 pro-democracy activists, some facing various charges, recently tried to flee hundreds of miles by speedboat to Taiwan. They were apprehended by mainland authorities and are detained there.
Write to John Lyons at firstname.lastname@example.org
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