Hong Kong police broke up a pro-democracy protest for a second consecutive day, in a sign that the easing of coronavirus restrictions in the city could spark a fresh wave of demonstrations.
Police in riot gear cited social distancing laws to disperse a group of protesters in a shopping mall in the city’s central business district, after demonstrators displayed posters and sang Glory to Hong Kong, the unofficial anthem of the protest movement.
This week’s demonstrations follow months of relative calm after the coronavirus outbreak sharply curtailed public activities and hamstrung a political movement that gripped the city last year. In March, the Hong Kong government announced rules that prohibited gatherings of more than four people.
But in recent weeks, as the world has been gripped by coronavirus, authorities have cracked down on the movement. Police arrested some of the city’s leading pro-democracy figures, including Martin Lee, an 81-year old lawyer who helped write Hong Kong’s mini-constitution and 14 other pro-democracy activists.
Since last June, more than 7,000 people have been arrested for their involvement in the protests.
Hong Kong has recorded no new coronavirus cases for four consecutive days and the government is expected to lift some containment measures. It has already announced that government workers will no longer be required to work at home from next week.
The prospect that some social distancing measures could be relaxed has galvanised some protesters.
“The new active cases are dropping,” said Chris, a 33-year-old office worker who declined to give his full name. “We believe that the so-called anti-gathering law was created to stop us coming out to protest.”
A 24-year old protester who declined to provide their name said the virus was being used as an “excuse” to shut down the protests.
While this week’s demonstrations were small in scale, analysts said they could lead to an increase in activity.
“There’s a good possibility that the anti-government protests might begin again, because basically the problems have not been solved,” said Willy Lam, professor of Chinese politics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “Since the onset of the coronavirus epidemic, Beijing has actually squeezed Hong Kong even further.”
Hong Kong introduced strict quarantine rules in March that have been credited with helping prevent a big outbreak in the city. There have been just 1,038 cases across the territory and four deaths.
Coronavirus has pummelled Hong Kong’s economy, which was already reeling from the protests and plunged it into recession. The government has set up a HK$30bn ($3.9bn) fund to support restaurants, travel agencies, retailers and other industries that have been directly affected by the outbreak. Adult permanent residents of the territory are also to each receive a cash handout of HK$10,000.