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How Beijing is reigniting Hong Kong's protests

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Hong Kong (AFP)

Hong Kong's pro-democracy protesters want to reignite their movement after a coronavirus lockdown lull, angered by a flurry of moves by China to subdue them.

Flashmob rallies have resurfaced in recent days and protesters are calling for a bigger show of force on Friday's Labor Day holiday.

Violent demonstrations last year paralysed the city of seven million people for months, driven by anger over Beijing chipping away at their freedoms.

China's communist leaders have only sought to tighten that control during the coronavirus pandemic.

Here is an explainer on how China's latest tactics are rekindling the pro-democracy movement:

- New bosses -

The year began with Beijing appointing two key officials to deal with Hong Kong.

Luo Huining was put in charge of the Liaison Office -- which represents China's central government in Hong Kong -- while Xia Baolong took over the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office.

Analysts saw the appointments as a clear signal that Beijing wanted to reinforce control over the city after the protests.

Neither have links to Cantonese-speaking Hong Kong and both have a track record of tackling troublesome provinces -- Luo as a corruption buster, Xia as a hardliner who suppressed unsanctioned churches in Zhejiang.

Since taking office, neither have signalled any willingness to reconcile Hong Kong's ideological divides.

Instead Luo has called for a new national security law and their offices have pushed for a greater say in supervising how Hong Kong is run.

- Anti-sedition law -

Hong Kong's failure to pass an anti-sedition law has long been a source of frustration for Beijing.

Article 23 of the Basic Law -- Hong Kong's mini constitution -- says the city must create a law prohibiting "treason, secession, sedition (and) subversion".

But it has never been implemented due to public fears it would curtail the city's free speech laws.

The last attempt in 2003 sparked huge protests.

Luo has said the city urgently needs the legislation to counter violent protesters and pro-Beijing politicians have begun campaigning for the bill.

- National anthem and filibustering -

Tensions were raised further by Luo and Xia's offices igniting a constitutional row.

Earlier this month their offices released coordinated statements lambasting pro-democracy lawmakers for filibustering in Hong Kong's legislature and choking dozens of bills.

The pro-democracy camp wants to stop a bill that criminalises disrespecting China's national anthem.

But Beijing's two offices suggested the lawmakers were betraying their oaths and could be prosecuted or kicked out of office.

Disqualifying lawmakers would be risky. It could weaken the opposition ahead of elections in September for the city's legislature. But it could also further galvanise voter anger.

- Legal watershed -

Some legal figures saw the statements as a watershed moment and a new example of the city's liberties being chipped away at by Beijing.

The Basic Law grants Hong Kong some self-governance and freedoms until 2047 -- the 50th anniversary of the city's handover.

Article 22 of the Basic Law forbids central government departments from "interfering" in areas where Hong Kong rules itself, such as its legislature and judiciary.

Beijing's statements on the lawmakers were seen as an unconstitutional breach of that article.

As criticism mounted, the Liaison Office went even further and declared itself unbound by Article 22.

The return of flashmob protests began soon after that announcement.

- Local government defiant -

Police and prosecutors have been busy during the virus lull.

Earlier this month 15 prominent democracy activists were arrested on charges linked to last year's protests.

Those detained were not the petrol bomb-wielding radicals but some of the city's best known moderates -- including an 81-year-old barrister who co-wrote the Basic Law.

Back in January Hong Kong's chief executive Carrie Lam vowed to "listen to public views" and heal divisions.

Yet prosecutions have continued apace for some of the 7,800 people arrested last year with authorities rejecting calls for an amnesty or an inquiry into the protests.

Lam's administration sided with the Liaison Office in the constitutional row.

And during a cabinet reshuffle last week key officials who sparked last year's unrest by pushing for a law allowing extraditions to China's party-controlled courts kept their jobs.

- What next? -

So far the flashmob protests have been small.

One gathering on Sunday night inside a mall attracted a few hundred protesters who were swiftly met by riot police.

But more rallies seem inevitable given anger towards Beijing is resurfacing just as the city looks to ease social distancing measures -- and as the one-year anniversary of last year's protests in June approaches.

Then in September, seats are up for grabs in the city's partially elected legislature.

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