As President Xi Jinping arrived in the city to mark two decades of Chinese rule on Thursday, protesters gathered in downtown Hong Kong to call for the release of Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo and 17 democracy activists held following a protest at the symbolic Golden Bauhinia statue.
"On the first day of Xi Jinping's visit to Hong Kong, we want to express our demands, which are that the Chinese government immediately and unconditionally release Liu Xiaobo," Chow Hang Tung, one of the event organizers, told the crowd gathered in the city's central business district. "He is innocent, and he is seriously ill."
"They make it sound very nice, saying that he has been released on medical parole, but nobody is able to see him or have any contact with him," Chow said. "He may have been moved to a hospital, but he is still effectively in jail."
Xi refused to answer questions from journalists about Liu's status after arriving in Hong Kong, however, drawing further public ire.
Instead, he said he plans to celebrate the "enormous success" of Hong Kong since the handover.
"We will work with all sectors of Hong Kong society to look back at Hong Kong's extraordinary journey in the past 20 years, sum up the experience, and look forward to the future," he said after disembarking from his Air China plane.
‘Under attack from all sides’
A vigil participant surnamed Leung said a superpower like China needn't be afraid of answering such a simple question, however.
"And yet he was so afraid of ordinary people," Leung said. "I think he should let him go ... so he can make a free choice about where to get treated," he said.
A participant surnamed Chan said she agreed with the calls for Liu's release.
"I think they should release him, because he has already been locked up for seven years and he has terminal cancer ... Here in Hong Kong, we'd like to do something to help him," she said. "I hope Xi Jinping will release both him and his wife."
Liu's wife Liu Xia has been under house arrest and in prolonged isolation at the couple's Beijing home since his award was announced in October 2010.
Fellow activist Hu Jia told RFA on Thursday hit out at the lack of transparency around Liu's situation.
"The Chinese government would have kept Liu Xiaobo's whereabouts and situation secret until he died, were it not for Liu's lawyer who made it public," Hu said. "Now they are under attack from all sides, they are trying to defuse the situation by pretending they are doing everything they should."
He said he doesn't believe the official line that Liu's cancer was first diagnosed in May, when it was already at an inoperable stage.
"The fact that they have done everything behind closed doors tells us that there are all sorts of shenanigans afoot," Hu said.
Tour of the city
Meanwhile, as Xi began his tour of the city, marking the 20th anniversary of the 1997 handover, detained former leaders of the 2014 Occupy Central movement remained behind bars after a protest on Wednesday night, prompting calls for their immediate release.
Nine of the 26 detainees were released following the Golden Bauhinia protest after hanging a banner calling for Liu's release and for fully democratic elections for Hong Kong, but former Occupy student leader Joshua Wong and 16 others remained in police custody after being carried away from the statue.
Wong, who is now one of the leaders of the post-Occupy political party Demosisto, said he may apply to a court to be released, while pan-democratic politicians said police hadn't even begun questioning the activists in connection with any charge.
Under Hong Kong law, police may only hold a suspect for a maximum of 48 hours without charge.
Demosisto and the League of Social Democrats said police appeared to be keeping protesters out of the way of the visiting Chinese leaders.
Lee Cheuk-yan, leader of the Alliance in Support of the Patriotic Democratic Movement in China that organized the vigil, said Xi's response to questioning doesn't bode well for relations between the central government and the city.
"If the mainland Chinese authorities can't even allow Liu Xiaobo any freedom of expression, not even the freedom to choose his medical treatment, then how are we to believe that the Chinese Communist Party will respect the freedoms of seven million Hong Kong people?" Lee said.
As he was being dragged into a police van after occupying the Golden Bauhinia statue on Wednesday, Wong called on people to "take to the streets" for Saturday's annual pro-democracy march, as Xi celebrates the anniversary in a highly choreographed ceremony at the Convention and Exhibition Center, followed by a reception for hand-picked guests.
Organizers declined to estimate how many would turn out, however.
Reported by Lam Kwok-lap, Goh Fung, and Ng Yik-tung for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Ding Wenqi for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.