Hong Kong police arrested 11 people on suspicion of distributing “seditious publications” on Thursday, as the force erected tight cordons across the city on the 24th anniversary of its Handover to China.
Five men and six women were apprehended in Mong Kok on Thursday afternoon as they were distributing leaflets near Soy Street and outside Langham Place mall.
Police said on Facebook that patrolling officers suspected that the materials handed out were “seditious,” and thus made three arrests under the Crimes Ordinance which was last amended during the British colonial era.
The arrestees included Student Politicism’s convenor Wong Yat-chin, Secretary General Chan Chi-sum and a female volunteer, as witnessed by an HKFP reporter on the ground. They were picked up by police on Soy Street right before a planned street booth was set to begin at 5 pm.
Dozens of police put up orange cordon tape around the trio on Soy Street, who held a pile of small placards with a slogan that read “resolutely defend this city.” The force told members of the public to leave the area, citing potential violations of the Covid-19 public gathering restrictions.
As Wong was being led away, he chanted: “Hongkongers, hang in there.”
The student group’s spokesperson Alice Wong was detained after a separate stop-and-search by police outside Langham Place. She was escorted onto a police vehicle together with three people.
As of 9 p.m. on Thursday, police arrested at least 19 people in Causeway Bay, Tin Hau, Mong Kok and Wong Tai Sin. The alleged offences included possession of imitation firearm, possession of offensive weapon, desecrating the Chinese national flag, distributing seditious publications, disorderly conduct in public place and obstructing police. The force also issued tickets to at least 19 people on suspicion of breaching the Covid-19 gathering restrictions.
“Police strongly condemn unlawful acts endangering public health and safety. Police will closely monitor the latest situation of various districts to ensure public safety and public order,” the force wrote on Facebook.
Large police deployment
The detention of the young activists in Mong Kok came amid a heavy police presence across various districts in Hong Kong. Thursday marked the city’s return to China from British colonial rule, as well as the the centenary year of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party.
Founded in May last year, Student Politicism is one of the few pro-democracy groups in Hong Kong that continues to organise street booths following the enactment of the Beijing-imposed national security law on June 30, 2020.
“[A]ny person who prints, publishes, sells… distributes, displays or reproduces any seditious publication shall be guilty of an offence and shall be liable for a first offence to a fine of HK$5,000 and to imprisonment for two years, and for a subsequent offence to imprisonment for three years,” the force said.
Another pro-democracy group, the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions (HKCTU), said their street counters in Mong Kok and Causeway Bay were quashed by police. The labour group said they were asked to halt one of the booths as police claimed they were “affecting the group gathering restrictions” and “causing chaos.”
Demonstrations were banned on Thursday – a traditional day of protest – with the authorities citing Covid-19 risks. The Security Bureau warned that those taking part in unauthorised demonstrations may face jail.
Police also asked the HKCTU to put away a banner that read “Livelihood is politics, grassroots want justice” at another street counter. According to the group, the force accused them of using an “inciting” slogan and said it amounted to “hatred towards the government.”
“In the past [on] July 1, street booths were normal to us. On July 1, 2021, in this society that cannot tolerate dissenting voices, street booths that insist on speaking out for Hongkongers become the target of suppression by the regime,” the HKCTU wrote on Facebook.
‘Grandma Wong’ led away
Over in Causeway Bay, where the annual July 1 democracy marches usually set off, major streets and Victoria Park were sealed off by police. The force banned the rally on Monday for the second successive year calling it a “high-risk activity” under the pandemic.
Brief scenes of chaos emerged on Great George Street on Thursday afternoon as police held a warning flag briefly to caution against potentially illegal behaviour. The force also took away activist Alexandra “Grandma” Wong at the site after she waved a large Union Jack. Journalists were told to stay away from the orange cordon and return to the pedestrian pavement.
Police have yet to confirm whether Alexandra Wong was arrested.
Meanwhile, a man was arrested in Causeway Bay at around 3 p.m. for allegedly possessing an imitation firearm, while another man was apprehended in Tin Hau at around 7 p.m. on suspicion of possessing a foldable knife.
“Highly concerned about the possession of such an offensive weapon in a crowded place, the Police do not rule out the possibility that someone intended to use the item to injure members of the public or police officers,” the force said.
Police also made three other arrests – one man and two women – for disorderly conduct in Causeway Bay. The man faced an a separate offence for allegedly failing to produce an identity proof for inspection.
Elsewhere, the League of Social Democrats (LSD) – which staged a four-person protest on Thursday morning around the flag-raising venue – managed to set up a street booth under the Canal Road flyover.
Some members distributed leaflets that documented the history of the July 1 march, while a television screen showed video clips of the mass demonstration in 2003, when an estimated half a million Hongkongers took to the streets to oppose the proposed legislation of a local security law as stipulated by Article 23 of the Basic Law.
Demonstrators in the video chanted: “Tung Chee-hwa, step down!” referring to the then-chief executive.
A banner was hung above the LSD’s counter featuring photos of its members who were either jailed or in custody. They included Jimmy Sham, “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-hung, Figo Chan and Avery Ng. The group called for the release of the four “political prisoners.”
Raphael Wong, chairman of the LSD, told HKFP that in light of the police ban, the pro-democracy political party had to “change platforms” to keep encouraging Hongkongers to speak up for democracy and justice.
“In the past, we would have a rally today, speaking out for the Hong Kong freedom and democracy… [but] the police force rejected giving permission for the rally, so we changed the platform to having street booths, to keep contact with Hong Kong people,” he said.
On the police deployment on Thursday, which reportedly involved some 10,000 officers, Wong said it was “undoubtedly [a] political mission.”
“Because it is the 100th anniversary of the CCP… so the police [are] trying to limit dissenting voices,” he said.
At around noon on Thursday, police shut down most parts of Victoria Park by invoking section 17 of the Public Order Ordinance.
It was the second time for police to cite the provision to shut down the recreational area, as youngsters and domestic workers were ushered out. A similar closure took place on June 4, after the force banned an annual candlelight vigil for commemorating the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre.
This year’s handover anniversary also came a day after Hong Kong marked a year since the Beijing-enacted national security law came into force.
Police made the first arrest under the sweeping security legislation – which outlaws secession, subversion, collusion with foreign forces and terrorist acts – on July 1 last year.
The defendant, Tong Ying-kit, who allegedly rammed a motorcycle with a protest flag bearing the slogan “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times,” has been on trial in the city’s High Court since last Wednesday. If convicted, the 24-year-old could face up to life in prison.
Earlier on Thursday, acting Chief Executive John Lee said that rights and freedoms had been protected under the security law: “[C]itizens will continue to enjoy freedoms of speech, the press, to protest and assembly, in accordance with the law,” he said.