Authorities in Hong Kong on Tuesday extended a ban on public gatherings up to and including the anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen massacre on June 4, amid an ongoing political row over the replacement of a pro-democracy lawmaker on a key committee in the city's legislature.
Under citywide restrictions that ostensibly limit the spread of the coronavirus, gatherings of more than eight people are currently banned. The ban had been due to expire on Thursday.
But Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam denied there was a political motive behind the extension of the ban in a city that has seen a little over 1,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and just four deaths.
"When you are faced with a very major public health crisis, all governments need these sorts of measures," Lam told journalists. "We are already less severe because we never imposed a complete city lockdown. We never prohibited people from leaving their homes," she said.
"Large crowds make it very easy to transmit infectious diseases. That’s the basis of the social distancing measures as far as prohibiting group gatherings is concerned," she said.
Hong Kong -- which was promised the continuation of its traditional freedoms under Chinese rule -- has until now been the only city in the People's Republic of China to hold public memorial events marking the massacre, when the People's Liberation Army (PLA) put a bloody end to weeks of student-led democracy protests on Beijing's Tiananmen Square.
Health Secretary Sophia Chan said the restrictions on gatherings are being extended due to a cluster of local Covid-19 infections in Tsuen Wan district, saying the outbreak suggested that there is still asymptomatic transmission of the virus in the community.
The restrictions will effectively ban an annual June 4 vigil led by pro-democracy groups at Hong Kong's Victoria Park for the first time since the 1997 handover.
Lawmakers dragged out
The ban comes after widespread anger among pro-democracy lawmakers after a pro-Beijing politician strong-armed her way into the leadership of the Legislative Council's House Committee, which sets the agenda, including the tabling of new legislation.
The election of pro-Beijing lawmaker Starry Lee to the position of chairwoman came after most pro-democracy members were dragged out of the room by security guards.
The strong-arm tactics by pro-Beijing lawmakers, working with security guards in LegCo, came after Dennis Kwok, the pro-democracy chair of the committee, was physically ousted from his seat by Lee last week.
Kwok had earlier been slammed by Beijing for using LegCo's rules of procedure to delay the election of a new chairperson, stalling a bid by the government to table a national anthem bill outlawing insults or disrespect to the national anthem of the People's Republic of China, which has been repeatedly booed by Hong Kong soccer fans.
China's Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office (HKMAO) accused Kwok of violating his oath of allegiance as a lawmaker, which has been a precursor to the removal of several pro-democracy lawmakers in recent years, leaving the camp with insufficient votes to block key legislation in LegCo.
The HKMAO has also recently used anti-terrorism rhetoric to describe the pro-democracy movement, calling it a "political virus" and a "dark, destructive force."
Plans by chief executive Carrie Lam to allow the extradition of alleged criminal suspects to face trial in mainland China sparked mass street protests beginning in June 2019, soon followed by widespread public anger at police use of force against peaceful demonstrators and demands for fully democratic elections.
Lam formally withdrew the hated amendments to the city's extradition laws, but stopped short of meeting protesters' other demands.
Police violence blamed
Frontline protesters, eyewitnesses, journalists, and human rights groups have repeatedly said that the majority of violence during the protests has originated with the Hong Kong police, who have been widely criticized for the excessive use of tear gas, water cannon, and pepper spray, as well as both non-lethal and live ammunition weapons, on unarmed protesters.
Medical personnel and rights groups have also slammed the handcuffing and arrests of voluntary medical staff, including nurses and doctors, during the siege of the Polytechnic University by riot police in November 2019.
A group of 15 pro-democracy figures including veteran democrats and barristers Martin Lee and Margaret Ng, media tycoon Jimmy Lai, and serving lawmaker Leung Yiu-chung were offered bail on Monday after charges were read that they had "organized and taken part in illegal assemblies" on Aug. 18, Aug. 31, Oct. 1 and Oct. 20, 2019.
Defendants including veteran rights activist "Long Hair" Leung Kwok-hung told the court they were being subjected to "political prosecutions" by a "rubbish government," when asked if they understood the charges against them.
The defendants chanted protest slogans and held up five fingers to indicate the five demands of the protest movement after the court hearing on Monday.
Reported by Fong Tak-ho and Wu Hoi-man for RFA's Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.