Hong Kong Protests Fall Silent Under Never-Ending Covid Rules

Shortly after Hong Kong rejected an application for tens of thousands of protesters to commemorate China’s deadly crackdown in Tiananmen Square, activist Chow Hang Tung couldn’t stand by a sidewalk booth showcasing the incident without police turning up.

About a dozen officers arrived with a loudspeaker Saturday to warn Chow and other activists they could be prosecuted for violating Covid-19 rules if a crowd gathered. One person received a HK$5,000 ($645) ticket for handing out electric candles and matchboxes marked “Never Surrender” to mark the Chinese military’s intervention on June 4, 1989.

Hong Kong Protests Fall Silent Under Never-Ending Covid Rules

“The pandemic is being used as pretext for cracking down on political demonstration -- I think that is very obvious,” said Chow, 36, a lawyer and leader of the group that applied to hold the annual vigil in Victoria Park. “You don’t see other countries completely banning all sorts of assembly. You don’t see other places where you can go to work normally, you can go to beaches and all sort of crowded places, but not a political demonstration.”

The crowds have returned to Hong Kong’s streets after weeks of near-zero local infections. Schools have reopened, soccer matches have resumed and the annual Art Basel festival is being held indoors. Yet protests remain rare, as the city’s Beijing-backed government repeatedly extends rules banning gatherings of more than four people and cites them to refuse applications for protests.

While the pandemic has added anxiety to mass protests across the globe, the fight against Covid-19 in Hong Kong has also coincided with a clampdown on dissent and the enactment of a powerful national security law. Hong Kong police rejected about one-third of the public assembly applications they received last year. That’s compared with less than 1% in 2019, when marches demanding more democracy swelled to more than a million people and sometimes turned violent.

Hong Kong Protests Fall Silent Under Never-Ending Covid Rules

The decision to ban the peaceful Tiananmen vigil for the second straight year has been seen by democracy advocates as confirmation that China has forever rolled back the freedoms it once allowed in former British colony. The gathering in Victoria Park, in which tens of thousands of people held candles while listening to speakers urge an end to one-party rule, has become an enduring symbol of Hong Kong’s tolerance of political dissent.

Besides commemorating the deaths of hundreds -- if not thousands -- of student democracy protesters in Beijing, the event highlighted Hong Kong’s own concerns about its return to Chinese rule in 1997. A record 180,000 people attended the 30th anniversary event in 2019, the last time police gave their blessing.

On Saturday, the local Security Bureau issued a statement warning that those who attend or promote the June 4 event in violation of the Covid measures could face as many as five years in prison. While the bureau made no mention of the vigil’s political message, it listed the security law, which carries sentences as long as life in prison for subversion and secession, among the measures it will uphold.

Hong Kong Protests Fall Silent Under Never-Ending Covid Rules

That means activists such as Chow, who heads the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, must be careful to avoid appearing as if they’re promoting a banned event. Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s government has stepped up prosecutions for unauthorized assembly, with a court adding 10 months to the prison term of jailed activist Joshua Wong last month for attending the Tiananmen vigil last year.

The Hong Kong Alliance announced the cancellation of the vigil immediately after the appeals panel upheld the decision Saturday, saying it would cease all publicity work and “will not be present and participate” in the event.

“The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region government has wanted to stop or preempt all protests of any scale since 2019,” said Steve Tsang, director of the China Institute at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies and author of several books on Hong Kong. “When it cannot be done under the cover of Covid, it will use other means, perhaps resorting to the national security law.”

Tiananmen commemorations have long been forbidden in China, where the Communist Party explains the crackdown as a necessary effort to stop “counter-revolutionary riots.” Defense Minister Wei Fenghe told a security gathering in Singapore two years ago that the military needed to “calm the turmoil.” That same year, a commentary published in the Global Times newspaper referred to the event as “vaccination” for Chinese society.

Hong Kong Protests Fall Silent Under Never-Ending Covid Rules

Lam has denied political concerns played a role in blocking the Tiananmen memorial, telling reporters Tuesday that she had “to act in accordance with the law” and comply with the ban. Her top deputy, Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung, separately warned about the risk of mutant virus strains, advising against “mass gatherings involving a large number of people with prolonged duration of contact, and where there would be difficulty in controlling the crowd size.”

Research into the spread of Covid-19 increasingly argues against limits on outdoor gatherings, such as the current Hong Kong measures that expire June 9. One study of more than 7,200 infections in the central Chinese city of Wuhan -- where the virus was first identified in humans -- found one case of outdoor transmission, and that involved two people having a conversation.

“The ban of more than four people gathering outside does not make sense given what we know about outside transmission,” said Monica Gandhi, professor of medicine and associate chief at the University of California San Francisco and a medical director at San Francisco General Hospital.

Hong Kong Protests Fall Silent Under Never-Ending Covid Rules

Few democracy advocates expect the government to relax its policy toward the Tiananmen vigil when the pandemic subsides. More than four-fifths of the 107 criminal cases brought so far under the security law involve speech crimes, such as supporting political positions, waving banners and posting on the internet. Thousands of criminal cases against people who participated in the 2019 demonstrations continue to wind through the courts.

Chow was distributing electric candles on Saturday for people to mark the day in their own way. But even such low-key displays are getting riskier. On Sunday, police arrested Alexandra Wong, a 65-year-old activist better known as “Grandma Wong,” on suspicion of taking part in an unauthorized assembly and inciting others to join as she marched alone down a banned protest route to commemorate Tiananmen.

The crackdown could breed more unrest if people aren’t allowed to express dissatisfaction, Chow said.

“Pushing things underground just hides the problems,” she said. “They don’t go away, they just hide underground and eventually explode -- explode in a maybe violent manner, a very disruptive manner.”

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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