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Hong Kong Protests Resume After Officials Relax Social Distancing Rules


After weeks of quiet, two new cases of coronavirus have been reported in Hong Kong. Relaxed social distancing rules have led to bars filling up and revived pro-democracy protests that had been dormant since January. But as NPR's Julie McCarthy reports, they are emerging to a changed Hong Kong.

JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: Democracy activist and barrister Martin Lee says the one country, two systems formula that promises Hong Kong a high degree of self-rule hangs by a thread. Beijing now asserts it has supervisory powers over Hong Kong's semi-autonomy, including what laws are passed. A bill that would make it a crime to mock the Chinese national anthem is now a priority. Lee says making Hong Kong subservient negates the very principle of two systems within one country, as well as China's duty to not interfere.

MARTIN LEE: That China would not rule over Hong Kong directly for those 50 years commencing on the 1st of July, 1997, but allow Hong Kong to rule this place. But China has now completely broken that promise. Our Hong Kong government should be defending Hong Kong.

MCCARTHY: Instead, Lee says, Chief Executive Carrie Lam is mostly doing Beijing's bidding.


UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Non-English language spoken).

MCCARTHY: Police arrested the 81-year-old Lee one recent Saturday, along with 14 other pro-democracy activists, and charged him with organizing and joining one of many unauthorized rallies last summer. Solidarity actions sprang up, renewing small-scale protests after months of quiet.

Modern China historian Jeffrey Wasserstrom's new book is titled "Vigil: Hong Kong On The Brink." He says the dramatic roundup was meant to remind everyone that even moderates will be punished. Wasserstrom says fingering Lee, who helped draft Hong Kong's basic law enshrining one country, two systems, sends a pointed message.

JEFFREY WASSERSTROM: So these arrests, I think, are one way of signaling that, for all intents and purposes, that deal's off, that now Beijing is going to be calling the shots. Beijing's saying what counts here is the one country part, not the two systems.

MCCARTHY: Hong Kong has been one of the most successful cities at containing the pandemic, re-opening bars and gyms, though a ban on groups no larger than 8 remains. But police paid little attention to crowds in bars last weekend flouting the limits. By contrast, video footage...


MCCARTHY: ...Showed riot police chasing some 200 protesters who had gathered after police denied their Mother's Day march. Activist historian Jeffrey Ngo with the pro-democracy party Demosisto says the authorities now rely on public health rules to keep order.

JEFFERY NGO: And there is a widespread belief that the Hong Kong government is doing that in order to create a legal justification to prevent protests.

MCCARTHY: Ngo notes China is doubling down when the world is distracted by the pandemic.

NGO: So there's clear evidence that China is taking advantage of that to crackdown on Hong Kong, expecting that the backlash would be less severe than usual.

MCCARTHY: Hong Kong's Police Complaints Council found no serious wrongdoing in the police response to last year's mass protests, frustrating hopes of holding officers to account. Martin Lee says Hong Kongers won't take the curbing of their liberties quietly.

LEE: Instead of free citizens of Hong Kong, we are now being forced to become slaves and abandon our core values. This is why the young people and the old people will not give up.

MCCARTHY: Lee and fellow activists are due in court Monday. Julie McCarthy, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF VETIVER'S "CONFIDING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Julie McCarthy has spent most of career traveling the world for NPR. She's covered wars, prime ministers, presidents and paupers. But her favorite stories "are about the common man or woman doing uncommon things," she says.