Hong Kong braces for Labour Day democracy protests despite virus
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Hong Kong (AFP)
Hong Kong democracy protesters are planning to hold multiple flashmob rallies later Friday, defying restrictions on gatherings during the coronavirus pandemic as anger towards Beijing rekindles.
The semi-autonomous financial hub was upended by seven months of violent protests last year, hammering its reputation for stability and leaving the city deeply divided.
The coronavirus pandemic and social distancing, however, ushered in four months of comparative calm. But small protests have bubbled up in the last week and activists are hoping to use Labour Day to muster numbers once more.
Pro-democracy unions and social media posts have called for people to shout slogans in their neighbourhoods on Friday afternoon, despite a ban on more than four people gathering in public places that is aimed at halting the virus.
The annual Labour Day often sees protests around the world but this year's are expected to be more tame given the ongoing global health crisis.
Applications by unions to hold traditional marches in Hong Kong were rejected by authorities.
But protesters are getting creative.
During brief rallies in malls earlier this week, activists encouraged each other to keep 1.5 metres apart and stick to small groups of four.
Riot police quickly intercepted the flashmobs, forcing them to disband as either unlawful assemblies or gatherings that breached the anti-virus measures.
"I think the government is using the anti-epidemic measures to suppress the people and the mass movement," John Li, a 33-year-old finance worker, told AFP during a lunch break protest in a mall on Wednesday.
"I prefer to join rallies and marches that have received approval from the police, but if such chances are reduced to zero, I will play it by ear," he added.
Three months ago, Hong Kongers were panic buying masks and hunkering down in cramped apartments as one of the first places outside mainland China to be struck by the coronavirus.
But the fear has abated in recent weeks.
Health authorities have made impressive strides against the outbreak with just over 1,000 infections and four deaths.
For the last five days in a row, the city of seven million has reported no new cases and authorities plan to begin easing movement restrictions in the coming weeks.
But any relaxation would come at a time of renewed political tension -- and as the one-year anniversary of the start of last year's huge protests approaches.
Anger towards Beijing has been inflamed by the recent arrest of prominent moderate activists on charges related to last year's protests and senior Chinese officials announcing a greater say in how Hong Kong is run.
Last year's protests began in opposition to an eventually scrapped plan to allow extraditions to China's party-controlled courts.
But the movement soon snowballed into a popular revolt against Beijing's rule and a call for greater freedoms.
Hong Kong's government and Beijing have shied away from any reconciliation moves, holding fast against protester demands for an inquiry into police conduct, an amnesty for the 7,800 people arrested during protests and universal suffrage.
© 2020 AFP