HONG KONG — When Sam Cheung Ho Sum went out to protest on Sunday, he wasn’t sure if many Hong Kongers would show up for the demonstration against the government’s delay of the 2020 election for the Legislative Council.
Thousands of people did turn out, but public health orders — and a massive presence of riot police — kept the crowds from effectively pushing their demands.
Like many in the streets, Cheung, one of the new young progressives who’d been poised to win a council seat, went to the downtown protest site alone, because law enforcement forbid public gatherings of more than two people. The smaller, scattered groups of protesters were met with riot police deployed in the thousands, posted on street corners to prevent gatherings, searching pedestrians and checking their IDs.
“We wanted to gather some democrats in a certain area, to demand the resurrection of the election, to oppose the Universal Community Testing Program and health codes, and to rescue 12 protesters who have been sent to China,” Cheung told VICE News. “We couldn’t do what we had planned. All of the street corners out there were occupied by a bunch of police.”
Riot police aggressively intimidated the crowds, firing pepper rounds to disperse them, tackling a girl believed to be 12 years old, and ultimately arresting nearly 300 people.
Most were arrested for unlawful assembly, but at least one woman was arrested for spreading pro-independence slogans. While those types of chants were a mainstay of last year’s protest movement, they’ve been criminalized under the harsh new national security law that China’s Communist Party imposed by circumventing the territory’s mini-constitution.
Hong Kong’s pro-China establishment has since used that law to take back the political footing it lost in the movement last year by suppressing free speech, arresting dissidents, and disqualifying 12 pro-democracy candidates from running for the Legislative Council.
“You know, I think the CCP [Chinese Communist Party] and the Hong Kong government are making us, the Hong Kong people, who we are today,” Cheung said. “Sometimes events that wouldn’t have had a lot of attention become big, because the government takes high-profile action to suppress them. When they suppress us, public opinion rebounds.”
When Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s Beijing-vetted chief executive, announced the election would be delayed, she tried to assure the public that the move wasn’t about holding onto power. She blamed the coronavirus, and said that without overseas polling stations and electronic voting, Hong Kongers abroad would struggle to participate.
“The decision to delay the 2020 LegCo [Legislative Council] Election has nothing to do with politics,” she said in a press conference.
Cheung, 27, was one of those elected last November, and emerged as a front-runner of Hong Kong’s democratic primary for the Legislative Council earlier this summer. He represents a new, progressive wave of young candidates who identify as “localists” and believe the democratic opposition can no longer afford to compromise with the pro-China establishment.
“It’s important for us to voice our opinions, even if the government won’t listen to us.” Cheung said.
As pro-democracy candidates hope they won't get arrested, or disqualified from the election for their activism before the people have a chance to cast their ballots next year, many China experts are warning that staying out of the government’s crosshairs may be difficult.
Cover: Protester holds a sign in front of a police line at a demonstration against Hong Kong's delayed Legislative Council election, Sept. 6, 2020. Photo by Mac Chau