Hong Kong – Hong Kong police dispersed hundreds of protesters in a shopping mall over the weekend, the second demonstration in just three days as the pro-democracy movement attempts to regain momentum despite COVID-19 social distancing restrictions.
The protesters congregated on several floors of the Cityplaza mall in the Taikoo Shing neighborhood of eastern Hong Kong Island on Sunday in defiance of a regulation banning groups of more than four people that was put in place amid the global pandemic.
Hong Kong police had warned protesters not to show up in a statement that said such gatherings were prohibited even if protesters clustered in separate groups of four and kept at least 1.5 meters apart from each other.
“Police emphasize that during this period, any group gathering may increase the risk of spreading the virus,” the police said. “Members of the public are advised not to participate in any prohibited group gathering. Police have zero tolerance against any violation and will take strict enforcement action.”
Sunday’s gathering followed a smaller lunchtime protest Friday that saw some 100 people rally at a luxury downtown mall. It came roughly one week after the arrest of 15 prominent pro-democracy activists in connection with unauthorized assemblies last year — a move that was condemned by the U.S. and several international organizations.
It also comes as Beijing agencies grow increasingly assertive and argue for a greater role in supervising Hong Kong politics ahead of elections for the city’s Legislative Council in September. On Sunday, protesters carried posters supporting the arrested senior pro-democracy figures, opposing new security laws and calling for the “liberation” of Hong Kong.
The coronavirus hit Hong Kong earlier than many global cities in January and effectively halted the pro-democracy protests that had rocked Hong Kong since erupting last June over since-scrapped legislation allowing extraditions to the mainland.
Despite a strike by medical workers to close the border with China, the pandemic effectively halted the large-scale gatherings that characterized last year’s political unrest.
However, Hong Kong’s relatively successful containment of the virus — with daily new cases remaining in the low single-digits or even at zero — has opened up political space for the protesters to argue they should be allowed to resume their demonstrations.
Several protesters Friday said they were worried the government would use virus-era restrictions to prevent political gatherings and suppress their civil liberties. Their concerns came as the government rejected an application by a pro-democracy labor group for a May 1 march, citing concerns about public health and security risks.
On Monday, Hong Kong’s Sing Tao Daily newspaper reported the government was considering easing some social distancing restrictions if the number of new coronavirus cases in the city remained low. It followed Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s extension last week of social distancing requirements, even as the city saw low daily virus tallies.
“This is not the time to let down our guard, or our efforts would go to waste,” Lam said.
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