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Police arrest hundreds during renewed Hong Kong protests, clashes

Pro-democracy demonstrators retreat as police advance in on their position, in Hong Kong, on Oct. 1, 2019. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times/TNS)
May 12, 2020

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

Hong Kong police arrested at least 230 people during protests at the weekend, as pro-Beijing politicians blamed the city’s liberal education system for a ‘lack of respect’ among young people.

Protesters turned out in Kowloon’s Mong Kok shouting slogans in support of the five demands of the democracy movement, to be met with a renewed onslaught of police violence.

Democratic Party lawmaker Roy Kwong was attacked by a group of officers and arrested on public order charges, before being hauled off to Hung Hom police station.

A group of protesters gathered to chant slogans at the intersection of Kowloon’s Nathan Road thoroughfare and Shandong Street, where a trash can was set on fire, while others threw objects at police officers at the New Century Plaza in Mong Kok.

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Later in the evening, protesters set fire to debris on Sai Yeung Choi Street, also in Kowloon.

Police fired pepper balls in response at the crowd, and also sprayed journalists with pepper spray, according to the Hong Kong Journalists’ Association (HKJA).

The Democratic Party issued a statement strongly condemning the attack on Kwong, who it said had done nothing more than to call for calm — from police officers.

Protests also flared in Hong Kong Island and the New Territories on Sunday, with some shops shutting down early in Harbour City.

A group of people gathered at Tsuen Wan Plaza at around 3.00 p.m., clad in black and chanting slogans, with some calling for independence for Hong Kong, although shopping continued around them as normal.

The protests came after police had denied an application for a major demonstration on Mother’s Day.

Protesters then organized singalong events and flash mobs across the city in various malls and shopping streets instead.

Preemptive policing

The police force appears to have begun preemptively policing an area by randomly arresting people who had done nothing that was obviously against the law, or issuing tickets to people for allegedly gathering in public under coronavirus social distancing measures, even if they didn’t know each other.

Current restrictions ban groups of more than eight people gathering “for a common purpose” in a public place.

But while police were quick to hand out tickets to people on the streets of Kowloon, social media photos from the weekend showed that crowds of expatriates were allowed to gather in a downtown bar district without wearing masks, and with no sanctions applied to them.

Riot police were also seen pointing pepper ball guns at regular shoppers in Mong Kok’s MOKO Mall, with children crying in fear and alarm.

Social media footage also showed riot police pinning a child to the ground, while others complained that a 13-year-old student reporter at the scene of one of the protests had been threatened and harassed by police officers.

“Protesters gathering in Mong Kok area chanted slogans and built barricades to block the roads, breaching public peace,” police said in a statement. “Some violent protestors even set fire[s] near Nelson Street, Sai Yeung Choi Street, Shantung Street and Soy Street, seriously disturbing public order and posing threat to public safety.”

In an apparent response to the incident with the student journalist, the government called on “underage persons” to stay away from protest sites.

“Underage persons are easily influenced by others to defy the law or take part in high-risk events,” the government said in a statement.

“It is extremely dangerous for underage persons to conduct news reporting activities at scenes of protests in the capacity of student journalists,” a spokesman said. “One can imagine how difficult it is for a child aged 12 or 13 to handle the complex and ever-changing situation at the scene.”

Police said they had also dispersed a crowd on Prince Edward Road West in Mong Kok and “deployed pepper rounds,” before seizing materials “for making petrol bombs” including gasoline and lighters.

Zero tolerance

Approximately 230 people aged between 12 and 65 were arrested for offenses including unlawful assembly, possession of instruments fit for unlawful purposes, possessing anything with intent to destroy or damage property, possession of offensive weapons, possession of dangerous drugs, disorder in public places, obstructing a police officer in the execution of the officer’s duty, assaulting police officers, and failing to produce proof of identity, the statement said.

Police also issued fixed penalty tickets to 19 people for breaking coronavirus rules on public gatherings.

“Police adopt zero tolerance against any violation and will take strict enforcement action,” the statement said.

Civil Human Rights Front vice convenor Figo Chan said the government is currently making full use of coronavirus restrictions to curb citizens’ right of assembly and association.

“We used to be able to demonstrate, but can we still? There is no way to hold demonstrations now,” Chan said. “It is far more dangerous than it was last year, and the likelihood of being targeted by police is far higher.”

He called on the administration of chief executive Carrie Lam to curb police violence.

“If the government does not handle this properly, the police will continue to behave in this way, which will only cause more trouble,” Chan said.

Beijing’s language adopted

But Lam told the pro-Beijing Ta Kung Pao newspaper in an interview published on Monday that her government has now adopted the language of the ruling Chinese Communist Party, which claims that the Hong Kong democracy movement is the result of “infiltration” by hostile foreign forces.

“Previously, opposition to interference by external forces was the language of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs [in Beijing], but now it is also the language of our Hong Kong SAR government,” Lam told the paper.

She also echoed comments on Monday by pro-Beijing politicians that the city’s liberal education could be leading young people in the city astray.

“Regarding the Liberal Studies program [in schools], I will definitely be explaining to you how we can deal with this,” she said. “Education shouldn’t be a chicken coop with no walls.”

She said some people were deliberately spreading false news and “biased distortions” on Hong Kong’s university campuses.

“So someone needs to look into this,” she said, mentioning the city’s education bureau, but also university authorities and sponsors and “gatekeepers” for speech on campus.

Hong Kong’s largest pro-Beijing political party, the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB), called for a renewed bid to bring in a widely hated patriotic education program to Hong Kong’s school curriculums.

The DAB said Liberal Studies in particular, which teaches children about democracy, human rights, and critical thinkings skills, had led to a lack of understanding of Chinese history and the radicalization of the city’s youth.

Patriotic education

Amid mounting unrest in Hong Kong, the ruling Chinese Communist Party last November unveiled plans for a new program of “patriotic education” in a bid to achieve ideological “unity,” including in the former colonial territories of Hong Kong and Macau.

In a Nov. 12 document, the party’s Central Committee called for a program of ideological indoctrination that begins in the cradle and specifically focuses on young people.

China has been at pains to frame the year-old anti-extradition and pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong as “separatist,” saying that protesters want independence for the city, although the majority say they are fighting to prevent the loss of their existing freedoms.

Officials in Hong Kong have already begun turning away would-be election candidates who call for Hong Kong to be granted the “high degree of autonomy” promised in the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration, an international treaty governing the 1997 handover of the city to Chinese rule.

China wants “patriotic content” to be integrated into textbooks and teaching materials at all levels of education.

But proposals for patriotic education in Hong Kong’s schools were shelved in 2012 after thousands of protesters camped outside government headquarters for several weeks, dressed in black and chanting for the withdrawal from the curriculum of what they called “brainwashing” propaganda from the Communist Party.

Student activist Joshua Wong and his Scholarism group, which spearheaded the “anti-brainwashing” campaign against Beijing’s call for “moral and national education,” went on to play a key role in the Occupy Central democracy movement two years later.

On Oct. 29, 2019, officials in Hong Kong barred Wong from running in forthcoming district elections, in a move that Wong slammed as “politically driven.”

Agnes Chow, also a veteran of the Scholarism movement, was debarred by election officials from standing in the 2018 Hong Kong Island by-election, for advocating self-determination for the city, in a move that was widely condemned as a threat to the city’s political life.