Hong Kong, China –Undeterred by a police ban and the arrest of several prominent activists, hundreds of protesters in Hong Kong have taken to the streets for a 13th consecutive weekend.
Black-clad crowds, some carrying crosses, gathered on Saturday at a sports stadium in Hong Kong’s city centre for what they called a Christian rally, before fanning out in the streets and marching towards the police headquarters in central Wan Chai.
The march came as police ramped up a crackdown on the months-long protest movement, which was triggered in June by a proposed bill that would have allowed extraditions to mainland China.
The draft law has since been shelved but the protests have continued, with demonstrators issuing five main demands, including universal suffrage and the resignation of Chief Executive Carrie Lam.
On Friday night, police detained three legislators, hours after arresting several prominent activists including Joshua Wong, one of the leaders of the 79-day Umbrella Movement in 2014.
Wong, who was charged with organising an unlawful assembly in June, was released on bail.
Saturday’s now-banned rally was called to mark the fifth anniversary of China’s rejection of demands for free elections in Hong Kong, a move that sparked the mass sit-in in 2014.
Earlier on Saturday, banners that read “Retract the 8/31 diktat” were unfurled from some buildings in central Hong Kong.
Prayer meetings, mass shopping trips
Despite turning down the request to hold a march, authorities made preparations by deploying water cannons outside Beijing’s office in Hong Kong, known as the Liaison Office, which has been fortified with two-metre-tall barricades.
Following the police’s decision to cancel the rally, protesters on Friday began devising workarounds online, calling for prayer meetings, which do not require police approval, as well as mass shopping trips in Hong Kong Island, where government buildings are located.
The protest movement has been largely leaderless, mostly coordinated through online forums like Telegram and Reddit with established civic groups acting only as intermediaries seeking permission to gather from the police. Any march involving more than 30 people or a gathering of 50 or more people must be approved by authorities.
While the demonstrations have been mostly peaceful, some have devolved into violence, with some protesters attacking police stations and government buildings.
Nearly 900 people have been arrested.
There is growing fear among protesters that if Saturday’s rally turns violent, authorities may invoke Emergency Regulations Ordinance, which grants the government sweeping emergency powers, including a ban on all public gatherings and censoring the media. The law was codified nearly a century ago following a mass strike.
Some also fear authorities in Hong Kong may call in Chinese troops.
China has slammed the protests, saying they were damaging Hong Kong’s economy and denouncing what it called “terrorist-like” actions by demonstrators.
On Thursday, Beijing rotated thousands of new troops into its garrison in Hong Kong. An editorial in the state-run China Daily newspaper said on Friday that Chinese soldiers have “no reason to sit on their hands” if “the already ugly situation worsens”.
Steve Tsang, from the School of Oriental and African Studies, said he was concerned that Beijing was preparing to deploy security forces to crack down on any demonstrations over the weekend.
“I think it’s a pretty naked threat,” Tsang said. “The Chinese government has a longstanding record of making clear threats before it deploys forces. The Chinese government is ultimately prepared to use security forces to sort out Hong Kong.”