Tense atmosphere as Hong Kong prepares to mark 24th anniversary of return to Chinese sovereignty

A display of national and Hong Kong flags adds a dash of colour to Tsim Sha Tsui East.
PHOTO: South China Morning Post

Hong Kong on Thursday (July 1) marks 24 years since its return to Chinese sovereignty in a politically fraught atmosphere, with traditional anti-government protests on the anniversary banned by police citing pandemic restrictions and authorities warning people against taking part in illegal gatherings or violating the city’s national security law .

The city on Thursday also celebrates the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party, and police will deploy some 10,000 officers across Hong Kong , with contingency plans in place to lock down Victoria Park – the gathering point for annual protests – if necessary.

The Security Bureau on Wednesday issued a statement warning against unauthorised gatherings and “the risk of local terrorism” – referring to the arrests a day earlier of two men in connection with the seizure of bomb-making materials – while also noting that violent crimes had dropped sharply because of the national security law.

The city’s leader will not be at the handover anniversary celebrations for the first time.
PHOTO: South China Morning Post

In an interview with state broadcaster CCTV, newly promoted Chief Secretary John Lee Ka Chiu said the law had helped Hong Kong to restore peace, but called for continued vigilance.

“External forces are still waiting for chances to cause trouble, especially when many countries want to attack our nation when it is getting strong peacefully,” he said. “We need to be proactive in promoting national security education, and I am very optimistic about this.”

The local government followed up with a strong statement objecting to “the grossly misleading and incorrect remarks by some individuals, organisations and countries” against the national security law, saying they were “purposely degrading the positive effect that the law has on Hong Kong”.

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Former Hong Kong leader Tung Chee Hwa told the state-run China News Service that the Communist Party had transformed China from a poor country to a harmonious and strong nation.

Tung called on Hong Kong youth to understand more about China so that they could become proud participants and contributors to the nation’s development.

The Hong Kong Research Association, a pro-Beijing group, earlier this week cited a new survey in which 60 per cent of respondents said the national security law had not undermined their rights or freedoms.

Chief Secretary John Lee.
PHOTO: South China Morning Post

The poll of 1,247 residents from June 10-22 found 47 per cent agreeing that they felt safer and more secure after the enactment of the law.

On the eve of the anniversary, police arrested opposition activist Chow Hang Tung, accusing her of inciting others to take part in a protest on Thursday.

The vice-chairwoman of the Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China was also charged with incitement over a previous arrest related to a banned mass vigil on the June 4 anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown.

The city’s official July 1 events coincide with larger-scale celebrations in Beijing to mark the Communist Party anniversary. Chinese President Xi Jinping will lead the celebrations attended by guests including Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet Ngor.

It marks the first time in eight months that Xi and Lam will be attending the same public event.

It also marks the first time in 24 years that Hong Kong’s leader will not be in the city to preside over handover anniversary celebrations – the new chief secretary will officiate at the official flag-raising ceremony and reception in the morning.

The 24th anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover also comes a day after the first anniversary of Beijing’s imposition of the national security law, and marks the first time since 2003 without the usual mass protest.

The US consulate posted a message on Facebook saying it was “bearing witness” to and tracking 114 arrests for alleged national security law offences, including “politically motivated” ones.

But a spokesman for the Chinese foreign ministry’s Hong Kong office accused the consulate of “smearing”. “The US has abused the concept of national security … It is not qualified to comment on the Hong Kong security law,” the spokesman said.

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Tam Yiu Chung, the city’s sole delegate to China’s top legislative body, the National People’s Congress Standing Committee, said he could see Hong Kong moving towards the right direction.

“Hong Kong’s epidemic and political situation have remained stable in the last few months. In the past year, people have also had a better understanding about ‘one country, two systems’,” he said, referring to the city’s governing policy.

But opposition activists warned that as Hong Kong faced a range of deep-seated socio-economic problems such as poverty, top officials and politicians must tackle them as soon as possible.

Raphael Wong Ho Ming, chairman of the League of Social Democrats, said this year’s handover anniversary was not a day for celebrations.

The flag-raising ceremony will be held at Golden Bauhinia Square in Wan Chai.
PHOTO: South China Morning Post

“I can foresee that under a new electoral system, Hong Kong’s poverty issue and other economic and political problems will only get worse,” he said.

Wong was referring to a series of drastic electoral changes imposed by Beijing earlier this year to meet the bottom line that only those deemed “patriots” should be allowed to run Hong Kong.

A source said the chief secretary’s keynote speech on Thursday was expected to highlight Article 1 of the national constitution specifying that “leadership by the Communist Party of China is the defining feature of socialism with Chinese characteristics”.

Some of Hong Kong’s celebrations began on Wednesday. A pro-Beijing youth committee organised a variety show at the Hong Kong Coliseum, and senior local and mainland officials in the city were among the guests.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.