By Jessie Pang
HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong police on Sunday allowed a small protest march under strict conditions in one of the first demonstrations authorized since a sweeping national security law came into force in 2020.
Several dozen protesters were required to wear numbered lanyards and were banned from wearing masks as police monitored their march against a proposed land reclamation and waste processing project.
Participants chanted slogans against the reclamation project as they marched with banners in the rain in eastern Tseung Kwan O district, where the project is to be built.
Some also criticized the restrictions on their protest, which capped a maximum of 100 participants, according to a seven-page letter from police to organizers, seen by Reuters.
“We need a more free-spirited culture of protest,” said James Ockenden, 49, who was marching with his three children.
“But that’s all pre-arranged and pre-numbered and it just destroys the culture and will stop people from coming safely.”
In response to the protest, the city’s development office said the project was intended to “support the daily needs of the community.”
It said it would “respect the right to freedom of expression” and explore the possibility of reducing the extent of land reclamation.
Police issued a “no objection” letter to organizers on condition that they ensure the protest would not violate national security laws, including riot demonstrations or speeches.
“Some lawbreakers may mix in with the public gathering and procession to disrupt public order or even engage in illegal violence,” the police warned in their letter.
Organizers said up to 50 people took part in the first protest sanctioned by the city’s police force in several years. They later told the media that around 80 people had joined Sunday’s protest.
Requests for other protests, including a candlelight vigil on June 4 to commemorate the victims of the 1989 Tiananmen Square raid in China, were denied on grounds related to COVID social distancing.
Hong Kong’s last COVID restriction was lifted this year after China decided to end its “zero-COVID” policy.
Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, the Basic Law, guarantees the right of assembly.
Since China-imposed national security law, enacted in June 2020 in response to protracted pro-democracy protests in 2019, authorities have cracked down on freedoms and arrested scores of opposition politicians and activists.
Some Western governments have criticized the law as a repressive tool, but Chinese authorities say it has restored stability to the financial center.
A protester surnamed Chiu, 50, said she appreciated the opportunity to protest “in difficult times” and said she saw the lanyards more as a means to make crowd management easier.
“It doesn’t mean putting a leash on ourselves to limit our expression. I think it’s acceptable,” she told Reuters.
Political observers and some Western diplomats are watching whether authorities will allow Hong Kong’s large-scale demonstrations to resume on June 4 and July 1, which have been a mainstay of the city’s once-buoyant civil society scene and have drawn thousands of people.
(Additional reporting by Xie Yu, writing by James Pomfret; Editing by Robert Birsel and Louise Heavens)