Some who criticise the tags police made protesters wear during Hong Kong’s first authorised protest in about two years seek to “endanger national security,” or “hijack” such rallies, the city’s security chief has claimed. The tags have been compared to “dog leashes” or “Jewish labels,” in reference to oppression in Nazi Germany.

Chris Tang
The Secretary for Security Chris Tang met the press on March 2, 2023. Photo: RTHK, via video screenshot.

The Secretary for Security Chris Tang told reporters on Sunday afternoon that tags worn by protesters were for the purposes of identifying the participants of a rally, ensuring headcounts do not exceed expectations and to prevent the protest from being “hijacked” by other people. He did not elaborate as to who the people may be.

Tang mentioned how the police are required to wear number tags, and pointed to the lanyards worn by exhibition visitors, or press badges donned by reporters: “[They] absolutely do not carry any discriminatory or derogatory meaning.”

The security chief’s comment came after an organiser of a rally in Tseung Kwan O last month told Commercial Radio that he felt the numbered tags were “extremely insulting” and “similar to the badges worn by the Jewish.”

Compulsory “yellow badges” were among a series of measures implemented by Nazi Germany to segregate and persecute the Jewish population in the 1930s and 40s.

‘Slandering the gov’t

On Sunday, Tang claimed some members of society “were arbitrarily stirring up emotions and slandering the government.”

“I believe some are hoping to instigate the public’s dissatisfaction and hatred towards the government, hoping to endanger national security, and hoping to make Hong Kong no longer peaceful,” he said.

national security law banner
A national security billboard. File photo: GovHK.

Tang added that such people could also be seeking to introduce difficulties to law enforcement, so that they had the opportunity to “again disrupt and hijack” these protests.

The security chief also denied that the identifying tags would make protesters worried about future repercussions: “For example, every reporter friend here has a ‘press’ label, would you think: ‘oh no, there will be consequences later?’ No, you wouldn’t,” he said.

‘Peaceful on surface’

When asked whether the rules implemented for the Tseung Kwan O march – whereby numbers were also capped and participants had to carry their own cordon line – are here to stay, Tang said the police would conduct risk assessments based on the social circumstances and implement suitable measures.

The security chief said the city’s authorities “very much respect” people’s freedom of speech and assembly, yet “many things had happened since 2019.”

Protests erupted in June 2019 over a since-axed extradition bill. They escalated into sometimes violent displays of dissent against police behaviour, amid calls for democracy and anger over Beijing’s encroachment. Demonstrators demanded an independent probe into police conduct, amnesty for those arrested and a halt to the characterisation of protests as “riots.” 

Chris Tang
Secretary for Security Chris Tang. File photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

“Although nowadays it seems peaceful on the surface,” Tang said, “we realise that, from time to time, many people are still hoping to stir up chaos at [public] events in the hopes of endangering our public safety.” He cited how a rally organiser had to cancel a protest scheduled for March 5 as people made online calls for violent groups to attend.

Meanwhile, Ming Pao revealed that a number of these online comments were left by users that had previously been active in pro-establishment pages. Their comments were deleted shortly after the newspaper’s report.

Questions over differential enforcement

A total of 10 public police-approved rallies or events were held under official restrictions on Sunday.

While participants in both an Easter celebration rally organised by the Harbourfront Commission and a Palm Sunday religious ceremony held by St. John’s Cathedral were required to observe the anti-mask law, Ming Pao reported that the strictness of enforcement differed at the events.

The newspaper said that many participants of the religious rally could still wear a facemask but all who took part in the Harbourfront Commission’s activity were asked to take off their masks by police officers and staff.

When reporters asked the security chief about Sunday, Tang said the anti-mask legislation “clear stated” its exemptions. “If there’s any situation, I believe our co-workers would record it, and determine whether to follow up afterwards,” he added.

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Peter Lee is a reporter for HKFP. He was previously a freelance journalist at Initium, covering political and court news. He holds a Global Communication bachelor degree from CUHK.