HONG KONG—Chief Executive Carrie Lam said stability had been restored in Hong Kong three months after Beijing imposed national-security legislation, as thousands of police officers fanned out to pre-empt any protests that might disrupt Thursday’s celebration of China’s National Day.
The city’s opposition camp called online for people to protest after police, citing public-health and security concerns, rejected an application for an organized rally.
Hong Kong deployed 6,000 officers across the city, many in riot gear and backed by water cannons, and police vans could be seen along the planned protest route. Groups of officers stopped and searched suspected protesters in busy shopping districts through the afternoon.
“The plain truth is, and it is obvious to see, that stability has been restored to society while national security has been safeguarded,” Mrs. Lam said at a reception marking the 71st anniversary of Communist Party rule of China.
Protests have largely been banned this year, with the police force often citing social-distancing regulations during the coronavirus pandemic. The city is getting back to normal after two months of strict public-health restrictions, though rules against public gatherings of more than four people remain in force.
“Stable and happy is what the Hong Kong government imagines us to be,” said a man in his 20s who identified himself as Mr. Wong, standing near police officers in a shopping district where some demonstrators had appeared. “But we are still so angry.” He said Mrs. Lam only wants what China’s Communist Party wants, not the city’s people.
Later, dozens of young men and women were lined up and surrounded by police, their hands zip tied behind their backs. As one group was loaded onto a bus, onlookers shouted, “Don’t be scared!”
The police said they arrested at least 60 people.
The Civil Human Rights Front, which organized some of the largest protests in Hong Kong during a political uprising last year, applied for the Thursday rally under the slogan “Save 12 HK Youths,” a reference to the dozen Hong Kong residents who were caught fleeing the city in an attempt to escape to Taiwan.
The arrest of the group, which was caught Aug. 23 in the South China Sea after leaving Hong Kong by speedboat and has been held in China ever since, has become a rallying cry for protesters. Among the 12 people on the boat, all but one had been arrested in Hong Kong for alleged roles in the protests or were already facing trial in the city.
Family members have demanded the group be given access to lawyers and phone calls, and be returned to Hong Kong. But Chinese authorities said Wednesday that they have formally arrested the 12 people, paving the way for them to be tried on the mainland.
The prospect of detention and trial in the mainland’s opaque and politicized judicial system under a since-withdrawn extradition bill in June last year triggered large protests that rocked the city. Those protests grew into a broader political awakening, with protesters calling for greater democracy and police accountability.
While people’s willingness to take to the streets waned in the beginning of the year because of Covid-19, a sweeping national-security law carrying lengthy prison sentences that was imposed by Beijing on June 30 has also had a chilling effect. On Thursday, police appeared to outnumber protesters.
Lee Cheuk-yan, a veteran activist who is facing prosecutions related to his role in various protests last year, gathered with three others outside China’s liaison office in Hong Kong early Thursday. He said they were representing a number of civil-society groups to send a letter to mainland authorities saying, “Without human rights there is nothing to celebrate on National Day.” The group also called for the release of the 12 detained in China.
“The authorities achieved stability through instilling fear among the people,” Mr. Lee said, referring to Mrs. Lam’s comments. “Using the cover of the pandemic to keep people from peacefully protesting is not real stability.”
In her National Day speech, Mrs. Lam thanked the central government for its support of Hong Kong’s prosperity, citing 90 cooperation agreements signed with the mainland over the past three years.
“All this shows that the central government always gives us strong backing and helps maintain Hong Kong’s prosperity and stability, whether Hong Kong is facing good times or bad, difficulties or opportunities,” she said.
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