By Jennifer Creery, Tom Grundy, Kelly Ho and Rachel Wong.
Hundreds of protesters gathered in shopping malls across Hong Kong on Sunday as riot police quashed plans to hold a pro-democracy march before it began.
The abortive protest – which some dubbed “Mother’s Day outing” to coincide with the annual holiday – was meant to kick off at in Tsim Sha Tsui, according to online posts.
The event was also later labelled “Hong Kong independence, the only way out.”
Dozens of officers in riot gear patrolled surrounding roads before the start time, stopping and searching bystanders including those wearing first aid and press vests.
Earlier this week, police banned Sunday’s march citing coronavirus social distancing measures.
On the Telegram messaging app, organisers on Wednesday announced the protest would be cancelled, but said: “Our determination to strive for democracy and freedom will not waver in the slightest by the government’s gathering ban.”
The government imposed social distancing rules last month in a bid to curb the coronavirus outbreak, which has infected 1,040 people in the city.
Hong Kong has not recorded any local infection for more than two weeks, whilst social distancing rules were relaxed on Friday to allow gatherings of up to eight people.
At around 2:30pm, police began to set up cordons near the Star Ferry pier.
Crowds then retreated into the neighbouring Harbour City shopping mall, raising their hands to signal “Five demands, not one less,” while chanting familiar protest slogans including “Hongkongers, take revenge” and “Liberate Hong Kong, the revolution of our times.”
Pro-democracy activist Tam Tak-chi of People Power expressed surprise at the police delay in entering the Tsim Sha Tsui shopping mall despite previously conducting clearance operations in plazas.
“I was in Diamond Hill, the Hollywood plaza, and last night, they give us half an hour to sing songs, to voice out our demands,” he told HKFP.
“I think because the shops here [are] quite high end and the police may think that some very important residents will be here to buy presents for Mother’s Day. So I think they are now thinking, considering what time is the best time to come in.”
Crowds formed in shopping malls across the city in response to online calls to chant slogans and sing pro-democracy songs.
They gathered at Times Square in Causeway Bay, MOKO in Mong Kok, Cityplaza in Tai Koo, apm mall in Kwun Tong and New Town Plaza in Sha Tin.
Mrs Lam, who is in her late 50s, told HKFP that she had chosen to celebrate Mother’s Day at Tsim Sha Tsui’s Harbour City following online calls for a “Sing with you” protest. She said such protest showed Hong Kong people had not forgotten the pro-democracy movement after almost a year: “I feel very sad for many [comrades], like those who have been jailed and those in exile in Taiwan. Hong Kong is their birthplace, they shouldn’t be forced to leave this place. The government has no right to suppress our right to say whatever we want.”
Lam added she thought a fundamental change in Hong Kong’s political system – to implement universal suffrage – was key, otherwise fulfilling other demands would only be an achievement on the surface.
Chan, a 17-year-old secondary student, told HKFP that she had not joined protests for months since the coronavirus outbreak hit Hong Kong in late January. But as the city recorded zero local infections for 21 days in a row, she felt the pro-democracy protests should pick up where it left off: “It’s important to keep the movement going. I know there is a risk of being fined by police for breaching the gathering ban, but I’ve considered it and I’m prepared.”
Meanwhile, over at Mong Kok’s upscale MOKO mall, police fired pepper ball projectiles in response to a drinks bottle bring thrown from above, according to RTHK.
The broadcaster reported that a 12-year-old girl was arrested, whilst a 13-year-old student journalist was taken away.
‘Breach of peace’
In statement on Sunday afternoon, police said protesters had “held banners, chanted slogans and breached public peace. Police entered several shopping malls to enforce the law because the force received reports from citizens.”
Citing social distancing regulations, the force added: “Anyone participating in or organising banned group gatherings commit an offence… The police urge all protesters to stop gathering or committing acts which may breach public peace, and leave the scene immediately. Officers will enforce the law resolutely.”
Protests erupted last June over a now-axed extradition bill. They escalated into sometimes violent displays of dissent against police behaviour, along with calls for democratic reform and anger over Beijing’s encroachment.
The unrest subsided in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
But following chaotic scenes in the legislature on Friday between the pro-Beijing camp and democrats, there have been growing calls online to resume large-scale demonstrations.