HONG KONG: Several thousand protesters gathered in central Hong Kong on Tuesday (Jun 9) to mark a year of sustained rallies as fears over looming national security legislation have reignited unrest in the global financial hub.
The crowd defied a government ban on gatherings of more than eight people due to COVID-19, as well as a heavy riot police presence on the streets.
Riot police were quick to close in and the crowds quickly dispersed, with scattered arrests made.
"We have been through a lot," a 23-year-old protester, who gave his first name as Michael, told AFP.
"But I still have to show my position, come out and tell the regime that we haven't forgotten."
Organisers of last year's huge rallies called on the government to lift protest restrictions on a city now largely free of COVID-19 infections.
"This movement has not finished," said Jimmy Sham of the Civil Human Rights group, which espouses non-violence.
Earlier on Tuesday, protesters gathered in several shopping malls to chant slogans, dispersing peacefully after an hour.
Some held placards reading "We can't breathe! Free HK" and "Young lives matter", nods to protests in the United States against police brutality sparked by the death of black American George Floyd.
“I am scared but I need to protest against national security laws. It’s important to continue to fight for freedom," said 25-year-old Tai, who declined to give his full name.
Last year on Jun 9, an estimated more than one million protesters took to the streets against proposed legislation to allow extraditions to mainland China.
The government later withdrew the Bill but widespread concern lingered that Beijing was stifling freedoms in the former British colony, sparking months of often-violent unrest.
Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam warned on Tuesday that the city cannot afford further "chaos".
"All of us can see the difficulty we have been through in the past year, and due to such serious situations we have more problems to deal with," Lam told a weekly news conference.
"We need to learn from mistakes, I wish all lawmakers can learn from mistakes – that Hong Kong cannot bear such chaos."
Almost 9,000 people, aged between 11 and 84, were arrested in protests over the past year, police said late on Monday. More than 600 were charged with rioting.
Activists as well as many diplomats and business leaders fear national security laws targeting subversion, secession, treason and foreign interference will further undermine Hong Kong freedoms, including its independent legal system. The laws could also see mainland intelligence agencies set up shop.
"The crackdown is getting more and more severe," said gym trainer Lee, 32.
Under a deal signed with Britain ahead of the 1997 handover of Hong Kong, China agreed to let the city keep certain freedoms and autonomy for 50 years.
But protests over the last decade have been fuelled by fears those freedoms are being prematurely curtailed, something Beijing denies.
Analysts say the space for dissent has rapidly diminished in the last year.
"I don't think the passion has subsided much, but the problem is that many actions are now not allowed," Leung Kai-chi, an analyst at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, told AFP.
"First (Beijing) loses the hearts and minds of Hong Kong's people and then it seeks to force them to be loyal," said Kong Tsung-gan, an activist who has published three books on the protest movement.
More protests are planned in coming days and union leaders have said they intend to hold a referendum among their members on Sunday on whether to launch a city-wide strike.
Authorities have insisted the national security laws will focus on small numbers of "troublemakers" who pose a threat to national security and will not curb freedoms or hurt investors. Lam cautioned against the strike plans.
Prominent activist Joshua Wong said the world had witnessed "the deteriorating situation in Hong Kong, with Beijing tightening its grip over the city's liberties".
"I have strong confidence in Hong Kongers that we will have ways to resist and defy," Wong posted on Twitter. "Moreover, I hope the world can stand with Hong Kong and protect the city from falling."
Washington has said it would remove Hong Kong's special treatment in US laws as it deemed the city to no longer be sufficiently autonomous. The European Union, Britain and others have expressed concerns about the proposed legislation, while Beijing hit back against foreign meddling in its affairs.