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Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam relied on thousands of riot police to enforce what she declared was a return to stability, sweeping up scores of would-be protesters before they could mobilize another mass demonstration on the anniversary of communist rule in China.

Crowds that gathered at popular protest points on National Day were met by phalanxes of armor-clad officers, with some 6,000 riot police deployed ahead of the holiday. As of 10 p.m. Thursday, police had arrested at least 86 people, including four district councilors, on suspicion of attending unauthorized assemblies and other offenses. Another 20 were ticketed for violating outbreak-control measures banning gatherings of more than four people.

Empowered by a sweeping national security law drafted by Beijing without public debate, as well as coronavirus restrictions, Hong Kong has effectively banned the mass public gatherings that activists have long used to push demands for greater democracy in the former British colony. Lam sought to demonstrate that strength with a traditional outdoor flag-raising ceremony Thursday — a stark contrast from last year, when the threat of disruptions forced officials inside.

“Stability has been restored to society while national security has been safeguarded,” Lam said at a reception marking the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. “Our people can continue to enjoy their basic rights and freedoms in accordance with the law.”

Earlier this week, an appeals panel upheld a police ban on a protest sought by the Civil Human Rights Front, which last year organized largely peaceful marches that drew more than 1 million people. Police arrested five activists this week on allegations that they incited people to attend unlawful gatherings, and the Chinese Liaison Office in Hong Kong warned that “the sword” of the security law was hanging over those who attempt to protest on the holiday.

The police presence “certainly intimidated the non-radical type of potential protesters,” said Claudia Mo, a pro-democracy lawmaker. “The new security law and the spate of arrests have worked as a scare tactic, probably fairly successfully.”

A riot police officer holding a canister of pepper spray clashes with a man during a protest in Causeway Bay district on National Day in Hong Kong on Thursday. | BLOOMBERG
A riot police officer holding a canister of pepper spray clashes with a man during a protest in Causeway Bay district on National Day in Hong Kong on Thursday. | BLOOMBERG

Small protests still flared up. In the shopping district of Causeway Bay, demonstrators were warned by police that they were violating security law provisions against secessionist acts by briefly chanting the popular slogan, “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times.” Police arrested 74 people in the area on allegations including possession of an offensive weapon, insufficient ID, disorderly conduct and driving an unlicensed vehicle.

Across Victoria Harbour, chanting broke out sporadically in a shopping mall in Mong Kok, which was also heavily patrolled by police in riot gear. In addition to the longstanding list of grievances, demonstrators had also wanted to draw attention to the arrests of 12 Hong Kong activists who have been held on the mainland since attempting to flee to Taiwan by boat in August.

“We have been fighting for over a year,” a Hong Kong University of Science & Technology student named Tse said. “If people do turn up, they will be there to express their concerns or express their non-compliance to the national security law. Many young people don’t like how the government is treating its people.”

Police also fined three reporters for online media who were attempting to cover the protests, exercising newly asserted press-registration powers that journalist groups have called a breach of the city’s press freedom guarantees. The Hong Kong Police Force said later on Twitter that “reporting in a public place remains unaffected,” posting photos of groups of journalists covering the gatherings.

Massive protests a year ago undercut President Xi Jinping’s efforts to convey national strength on the 70th anniversary of Communist Party rule, as demonstrators clashed with police and one protester was shot by a riot officer. Xi later took unprecedented action to impose the security law, giving authorities the power to jail for life those convicted of crimes including subversion and collusion with foreign powers.

Suppressing dissent won’t make it go away, said Nick Or, an assistant professor of public policy at the City University of Hong Kong. “The political system in Hong Kong fails to set up an institution to address the demands and grievances in society,” he said.

As recently as Sept. 6, thousands of Hong Kong residents defied warnings with a mass demonstration against the government’s decision to postpone elections by a year over the pandemic. Hundreds were arrested.

Support for several of the protest movement’s goals increased this summer, according to a Reuters/Hong Kong Opinion Research Institute poll released in August. Just over half of respondents said they “very much oppose” the national security law, and the share in favor of Lam’s resignation rose to 58 percent.

In her speech, Lam criticized unnamed foreign governments for “unjustified actions,” an allusion to U.S. sanctions leveled against Lam and other top officials in reaction to the security law. “I and my relevant colleagues will continue to discharge our duty to safeguard national security in accordance with the law without fear or anxiety,” she said.

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