Riot police deployed in force across Yau Tsim Mong on Sunday after banning a pro-democracy protest on what would have been the legislative election polling day.
Over 289 arrests were made by the evening as officers fired pepperballs and pepper spray in Mong Kok.
Police stopped and searched dozens of protesters and journalists as small groups of officers manned junctions across the district.
They also criticised the election postponement, after the government delayed the polls by a year citing the coronavirus outbreak.
Some drew attention to the 12 Hongkongers who remain detained in mainland China after being caught trying to flee to Taiwan by speedboat last month.
There was a heavy police presence throughout the day, as officers set up cordons and chased demonstrators around the streets off Nathan Road.
Protesters chanted anti-police slogans as others chanted for universal suffrage.
Some chanted “liberate Hong Kong; revolution of our times” – a slogan banned under the Beijing-imposed national security law.
Others waved blank placards as a free speech protest.
The League of Social Democrats said that activists Leung Kwok-hung, Raphael Wong and Figo Chan were arrested outside Jordan’s Eaton hotel.
One demonstrator, who gave his name as V, told HKFP that he prepared a placard reading “Stand with Hong Kong & Thailand and Belarus” because he thought there were different forms of suppression occurring in different countries: “As the victims of suppression, although we can’t help ourselves, I hope when [people in Thailand & Belarus] see this placard, they will know we want to support them and stand with them,” he said.
Another activist, who gave his name as Alex, told HKFP that he attended on Sunday because he wanted to vote. However, he said the protests were unlikely to escalate to the level seen during last year’s anti-extradition unrest: “I don’t think it’s as hot as last year, because of the national security law – and the police and the government are suppressing the people more and more – so I think the protests will change in form, like [go] online.”
He said he didn’t fear arrest: “They said it’s illegal, but it’s ridiculous to be illegal… I just come out to walk around on the street.”
Later in the afternoon, police fired pepperball rounds on Sai Yeung Choi Street South – the district’s main shopping thoroughfare – leaving a member of the press injured.
Meanwhile, pepperspray was deployed on Shantung Street as undercover officers dressed as protesters tackled several people to the ground, according to journalist Ryan Kilpatrick.
Police said on Facebook that as of 9 pm, 289 people had been arrested in the Yau Tsim Mong area. 87 were arrested for allegedly participating in an unlawful assembly.
Others were apprehended on suspicion of assaulting and obstructing police, disorderly behaviour in a public place and other offences.
Separately, police issued fixed penalty tickets to 22 people for allegedly violating the Covid-19 ban on public gathering of more than two.
The force said protesters had thrown debris at officers, chanted pro-independence slogans and sought to block roads: “Police warned the protesters to cease all illegal acts, including throwing trash which severely affected the hygiene of the area. At the critical juncture of fighting against the pandemic, it is the collective responsibility of every member of the public to maintain the hygiene of the community, so as to lower the risk of spreading virus,” a statement said.
In June, Beijing enacted laws to prevent, stop and punish behaviour in Hong Kong that it deemed a threat to national security. The legislation was inserted into the city’s mini-constitution – bypassing the local legislature – following a year of pro-democracy protests and unrest. It criminalised subversion, secession, foreign interference and inference with transportation and other infrastructure.
The move – which gave police sweeping new powers – alarmed democrats, civil society groups and trade partners, as such laws have been used broadly to silence and punish dissidents in China.
A spokesperson for China’s office in Hong Kong condemned Sunday’s protests and activists who advocated “mutual destruction.”
“They blatantly violate the group gathering ban amid the pandemic. Their illegal acts is a provocative aggression to the law and our national consciousness and a ruthless disregard to the general public’s life and health,” the China Liaison Office spokesperson said. “In safeguarding the national security of Hong Kong and the stability of society, there are only rigid principles and no room for flexibility. There will be zero tolerance of all acts that violate the security law,” the statement read.
Additional reporting: Kelly Ho.