A small group of prominent Hong Kong democracy activists attempted Thursday to halt the motorcade of top official Zhang Dejiang — the most senior Chinese official to have visited the territory since 2014’s Umbrella Revolution — as it approached a major thoroughfare, but were foiled by police.
The activists spilled into the road at the northern egress of the Eastern Harbour Crossing tunnel, which connects Hong Kong Island to the rest of the territory, as Zhang and his security detail were about to pass through it. Police officers, who outnumbered the activists twofold, were quick to intervene.
The protesters included Nathan Law and Joshua Wong, two students who came to political prominence here during the 2014 democracy demonstrations and now lead the a political party, Demosistō, which calls for self-determination for Hong Kong, bore the brunt of the conflict. Law was slammed by an officer into a fence; Wong was dragged along the pavement when he resisted. He and others were later charged with disorderly conduct and resisting or obstructing public officers
“I’m a bit injured,” Wong told TIME later, “but we showed Zhang our message — we want to demand self-determination in Hong Kong and an end to one-party rule in China.”
The clash was the first serious conflict during Zhang’s three-day visit, in large part because Hong Kong authorities had worked diligently to project an illusion of political peace. It was a massive orchestration: thousands of police officers were stationed around the city, including on boats in Victoria Harbour and at vantage points on the upper levels of skyscrapers.
Wan Chai, the commercial district where Zhang was staying and attending meetings, was effectively on lockdown. Inconspicuous “protest zones” had been established in the area, but demonstrators mostly ignored them, saying they had been purposely placed outside Zhang’s sight.
“If there are 6,000 officers and secret agents, and five activists can still make themselves seen, it shows they can’t suppress us,” Wong told TIME. “If you want to clear the roads from Wan Chai across the city, we are still going to block you at the midpoint.”
Zhang was in town to attend a forum on the Chinese trade initiative known as One Belt, One Road, but many saw a greater political significance to his visit. It comes at a time when some Hong Kongers — especially young intellectuals — are calling for the territory’s complete independence from China.
For those who support self-determination, the logic is simple: Hong Kong’s freedoms have gradually been eroded since Britain returned the former colony to China in 1997; to preserve them, Hong Kong must do away with the constitutional dynamic known as “one country, two systems” and divorce itself from the mainland altogether.
It is an idea that Zhang firmly condemned at a banquet given in his honor on Wednesday night. He assured his audience that Hong Kong would not lose its distinct sociopolitical identity, but then called on the local judiciary to crack down on political dissenters — “fulfill the solemn duty to safeguard the rule of law,” as he put it, according to a report in the South China Morning Post.
“This is not the ‘rule of law’ as we understand it in Hong Kong,” Michael Davis, an expert on Chinese and Hong Kong law at the University of Hong Kong, told TIME on Thursday. “He basically spoke to the mainland version of ‘rule of law’ — that is, the party makes the law and is above the law, and the obligation of the people is to follow this law.”
In this case, Davis says, the law concerns “national security,” a sweeping term used by Chinese authorities to forbid and punish acts of speech that threaten the hegemony of one-party rule. A sweeping piece of legislation ratified by China’s rubber-stamp legislature last July — on the anniversary, incidentally, of Hong Kong’s return to China — signified an unprecedented crackdown.
“Zhang was saying that [Hong Kong authorities] should take matters of ‘national security’ more seriously, and give less attention to the legal guarantees of free speech,” Davis said.