A small group of protesters defied a weekday ban on protests in Hong Kong's Civic Square, a main focus of the 2014 pro-democracy Occupy Central movement, after it reopened on Thursday, three years after the protests ended.
Around 10 protesters led by Hong Kong’s Labour Party marched into the square, defying security guards who tried to stop them, amid growing fears from pro-democracy groups that the city’s residents may be losing their cherished right to public protest.
In August, a court in Hong Kong jailed three former student leaders of the city's 2014 pro-democracy movement over their occupation of the closed-off square at the start of the Occupy Central civil disobedience campaign for fully democratic elections.
In a move widely criticized as a form of political retaliation, former student leader Joshua Wong, now general secretary of the political party Demosisto, was handed a six-month jail term, while ousted lawmaker Nathan Law was imprisoned for eight months and former student leader Alex Chow for seven months by the city's Court of Appeal.
The three had previously been sentenced to community service and a suspended prison sentence by a magistrate after being found guilty of charges relating to "illegal assembly." They are currently out on bail pending appeal.
Law said he believes the re-opening of the square is timed to distract attention away from China’s announcement on Wednesday that it will impose its laws on sections of a high-speed railway station inside Hong Kong’s city limits.
“I think [chief executive] Carrie Lam wants to take away the nasty taste of the rude imposition of the ruling [on the railway station checkpoint] by opening Civic Square again,” Law said.
“But if citizens aren’t allowed to express their political demands here, then it’s a fake re-opening,” he said.
The government has announced that protests will only be allowed in the square on Sundays and public holidays, while anyone wanting to protest in the area outside the government's headquarters, officially called the East Wing Forecourt, must apply for permission in advance.
“We all remember the protesters who stormed Civic Square in 2014, who were detained as they sat right here on this platform,” Labour Party chairman Steven Kwok, who took part in Thursday’s protest, said at the scene.
“They may have reopened Civic Square, but only with a variety of restrictions,” he said. “I think Carrie Lam is trying to prevent something like that from happening again.”
Under the new rules, the square is only open from 6.00 a.m. to 11.00 p.m, and protesters wishing to enter the area outside government headquarters must apply for permission in advance.
“If they are truly going to re-open it, you shouldn’t need to apply,” Kwok said. “It should be open 24 hours a day, because it should belong to the people of Hong Kong, who should have the right to come here to protest and to make the government hear their voices.”
Conditions and barriers
The Square was ordered closed by then chief executive C.Y. Leung in 2014, who cited “security reasons.”
Protest leader and Civil Human Rights Front convenor Sammy Ip said the re-opening of Civic Square on such terms isn’t good news for the city’s traditional freedom to protest.
“I don’t think this is a good thing,” Ip said. “The Civil Human Rights Front’s view has always been that you shouldn’t need to apply, but so many conditions have been attached to the re-opening of Civic Square.”
“There are also special barriers, which isn’t ideal,” he said. “I think it should be open to ordinary people, and the opening hours should be extended, otherwise it’s pretty pointless.”
Hong Kong’s second-in-command Matthew Cheung defended the limits on protests, saying staff also need to use the area, along with vehicles.
“If it was open all hours, then that would make things very difficult for more than 3,000 employees, several hundred visitors and vehicles [that come here daily],” Cheung said.
“You can hold a protest outside the gates on Tim Mei Avenue without needing a permit,” he added.
A treaty signed in 1984 by then British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Chinese Premier Zhao Ziyang set out how Britain would end its century-and-a-half long rule over Hong Kong, and how China would govern the city using the "one country, two systems" principle promising the maintenance of the city's traditional freedoms for at least 50 years.
But a string of top-down rulings by China's parliament on internal debates in the city, as well as cross-border detentions of five Hong Kong booksellers who sold banned political books to customers across the internal border, have left many fearing that the city's traditional freedoms of press and association, and its judicial independence, have been seriously eroded.
The recent disqualification of six pro-democracy lawmakers in a row over their oaths of allegiance following an intervention by China's parliament last November, and the jailing of Law, Wong and Chow indicate that Beijing has scant respect for the "high degree of autonomy" promised to the city, activists and rights groups say.
Reported by Lam Kwok-lap for RFA’s Cantonese Service, and by Gao Feng for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.