Hong Kong’s Chief Executive John Lee has said that all public gatherings must be conducted “orderly, peacefully and in accordance with the law.” His comments came after protesters marching against a land reclamation plan on Sunday were subject to a number of strict conditions, including having to wear number tags to identify them.

john lee press conference
Chief Executive John Lee speaks at a weekly press conference on March 28, 2023. Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

Speaking during a weekly press conference on Tuesday, Lee was responding to a reporter’s question about whether the rules applied to the weekend protest would be extended to demonstrations in the future.

“We have experienced the black violence which we all suffered in… 2019 and the follow up troubles,” Lee said. “So we have to be careful that any public gathering will not be either hijacked or turned into troubles that will cause not just inconvenience, but risk to public order, public safety and also national security.”

Sunday’s heavily policed demonstration, organised by residents of Tseung Kwan O, saw around 80 people march along a fixed route within a cordon held up by marshals – and at times, themselves – as required by officials. They had to wear a number tag around their necks at all times, and people were not allowed to join the march mid-way after it had begun.

According to a list of rules in the police permit for the event, the requirement to wear a number tag was based on “past experiences” which showed that “some lawbreakers may mix into the public meeting and procession to disrupt public order or even engage in illegal violence.”

The number of participants was capped at 100, and if more turned up, organisers were responsible for asking people to leave. Participants were also not allowed to wear a mask, the permit stated, citing a mask ban enacted during unrest in 2019 to prevent protesters from hiding their identities.

Public events in recent weeks, including a 40-person cyclothon organised by the Scouts Association of Hong Kong and a “family fun walk” for a kindergarten, have also been subject to police regulations such as the requirement of a high ratio of marshals to participants.

Organisers of public events have been told to ensure that the activities complied with “all laws in force” in the city, including the national security law.

Hong Kong Police
Photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

Earlier this month, participants in an International Women’s Day celebration organised by a migrant workers’ union were also ordered not to wear masks.

‘Oppose reclamation’

Sunday’s march was believed to be the first protest against a government plan since Covid-19 began more than three years ago.

Authorities have proposed reclaiming land at a site known as Area 132 – on the southern end of Tseung Kwan O near an industrial site – and relocating a cement plant and construction waste facility there. While the Development Bureau has said the site is in a “relatively obscure area” and “with a buffer distance of around 1 kilometre from the nearest residential development,” some protesters said the facilities could cause pollution and affect air quality in the neighbourhood.

Reclamation work will begin in 2025.

tseung kwan o protest
A group of residents hold the first authorised protest and march in several years in Hong Kong against the proposal for reclamation in the district on Tseung Kwan O on March 26, 2023. Photo: Peter Parks/AFP.

Marching on Sunday, protesters held up placards reading “oppose reclamation off Tseung Kwan O” and “no cement plant, no waste treatment plant,” referring to facilities planned in the area.

An organiser, Chan Chin-chun, told local media outlets that requiring protesters to wear number tags was rather strict, but that he could accept it in exchange for demonstrators being able to express their demands. He added that he hoped such restrictions were one-off.

Speaking on Tuesday, Lee added that the police chief has the duty to ensure that public gatherings proceed in an “orderly, safe and lawful manner.”

“The Commissioner of Police will, as a result of each public gathering, look at was has happened and then gather the experience… for future handling,” he said.

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Hillary Leung

Hillary has an interest in social issues and politics. Previously, she reported on Asia broadly - including on Hong Kong's 2019 protests - for TIME Magazine and covered local news at Coconuts Hong Kong.