This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
Police in Hong Kong fired pepper spray at a crowd in a Shatin shopping mall on Friday after they planned a public singalong as part of the city’s ongoing pro-democracy movement, with police out in force after the authorities turned down an application to hold a Labor Day march in the city.
Dozens of riot police charged into Shatin’s New Town Plaza mall ahead of the planned “sing with you” event, to be faced with people hurling insults and chanting “Free Hong Kong! Revolution now!”
Police began cordoning off sections of the mall, as businesses hurriedly shuttered up for the day. Some journalists were among those pepper sprayed, government broadcaster RTHK reported.
Police were also out in force in Mong Kok, stopping and searching people and vehicles at the junction of Soy Street and Portland Street, and ordering passers-by not to stand around watching.
Local residents and shoppers also chanted slogans and insults at police, who cordoned off at least one entrance to the Langham Place shopping mall and threatened bystanders with pepper spray.
Police then broadcast a message telling people to leave for public health reasons, as gatherings of more than four people have been banned under coronavirus restrictions.
Trade unionists who were handing out leaflets to passers-by in lieu of the planned Labor Day march were also forced to leave, according to former lawmaker and General Secretary of the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions (HKCTU) Lee Cheuk-yan.
‘The police can’t even count to four’
Lee said the trade unionists shouldn’t have been forced to leave, as they were complying with social distancing requirements.
“The whole thing was actually ridiculous,” Lee told RFA. “I suspect that the police can’t even count to four.”
“They quoted the [coronavirus] restriction order … and I said there were only four of us and that we were very far apart — 1.5 meters between each person,” he said. “I told them they should charge me … but they didn’t.”
Labour Party district councilor Chiu Yan Loy said police were using the coronavirus restrictions as a pretext for dispersing labor union activists who tried to present a petition to government headquarters in Admiralty on Friday.
Labour Party deputy chairman Mak Tak Ching was taken away and accused of obstructing police duties.
“There were only four members of the Labour Party and the League of Social Democrats there, yet the police said Mak Tak Ching was the person responsible for the activity,” Chiu told RFA.
“They asked to see his ID, but Mak Tak Ching didn’t, so the police took him away.”
‘Clearly, there is a political aim’
HKCTU chairperson Carol Ng said the group had only intended to hand out leaflets.
“There was no intention to get people to gather,” Ng said. “We thought that we could stay within police restrictions.”
“The HKCTU had no way to foresee that there would be other events taking place, but we were still targeted by the police,” she said. “Clearly, there is a political aim in this restriction of people’s right of assembly.”
Plans by Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam to allow the extradition of alleged criminal suspects to face trial in mainland China sparked mass street protests beginning in June 2019, soon followed by widespread public anger at police use of force against peaceful demonstrators and demands for fully democratic elections.
Lam has since formally withdrawn the hated amendments to the city’s extradition laws, but has stopped short of meeting protesters’ demands for an amnesty for arrestees, an independent public inquiry into police violence and abuse of power, an end to the description of protesters as “rioters,” and fully democratic elections.
Frontline protesters, eyewitnesses, journalists and human rights groups have repeatedly said that the majority of violence during the protests has originated with the Hong Kong police, who have been widely criticized for the excessive use of tear gas, water cannon and pepper spray, as well as both non-lethal and live ammunition weapons, on unarmed protesters.
Medical personnel and rights groups have also slammed the handcuffing and arrests of voluntary medical staff, including nurses and doctors, during the siege of the Polytechnic University by riot police in November 2019.