HONG KONG — Dozens of people on Sunday joined Hong Kong’s first authorized protest since the lifting of major COVID-19 restrictions under unprecedentedly strict rules, including wearing a numbered badge around their necks.
The rules set out by the police, who cited security reasons, came as the financial hub was promoting its return to normalcy after years of anti-virus controls and political turmoil.
During the pandemic, protests were rare due to COVID-19 restrictions. In addition, many activists have been silenced or jailed after Beijing imposed a national security law following massive protests in 2019. Critics say the city’s freedom of assembly that was promised Hong Kong when it returned to China from Britain in 1997 has been eroded.
Sunday’s demonstration against the proposed reclamation and construction of rubbish-processing facilities was the first police-approved march of its kind after the city scrapped its mask mandate and social distancing limits.
But organizers had to comply with police requirements such as taking measures to ensure the number of participants would not exceed the expected turnout of 100 people and asking for proof of a “reasonable excuse” from protesters who wore masks during the event. At the height of the 2019 anti-government movement, Hong Kong’s government invoked emergency powers to ban masks from public gatherings so it can identify protesters who officials accused of illegal acts.
On Sunday, about 80 people expressed their opposition to the plans in Tseung Kwan O, a residential and industrial area, the organizer said. They had to walk in a cordoned-off moving line in the rain amid heavy police presence.
Theresa Wang described the new restrictions as “a bit weird” but said they were still acceptable because the city was adjusting to “the new Hong Kong.”
“I’m not happy but we have to accept it. We have to accept what is deemed legal now,” the 70-year-old retiree said, adding that she hoped the protest would be a sign the government is more open to discussion.
“But if it is a requirement, what can I say? I prefer not to comment further. You know what I mean,” he said.
In granting its approval, police also requested that organizers ensure there would not be any acts that might endanger national security, including displaying anything seditious.
Cyrus Chan, one of the march organizers, said demonstrators had communicated with police on their promotional materials and slogans. Officers earlier had told him that participants should not wear all-black outfits, he said. Protesters commonly wore black during the 2019 protests.
“It’s definitely strict,” Chan said. “We hope this is just an individual case. We hope to show them that Hong Kong society has the ability to have peaceful marches and they do not need to set that many conditions to restrict us.”
Earlier this month, the Hong Kong Women Workers’ Association planned a march to call for labor and women’s rights but canceled it at the last moment without specifying why.
Days later, the association said on its Facebook page that police had invited it for further meetings after granting it the approval and that it had tried its best to amend the agreement. But it still could not launch the protest as it had wished, it wrote at that time.
A pro-democracy group separately said national security police had warned four of its members not to participate in the association’s march.