Hong Kong's leader Thursday hailed her city's "return to peace" after China imposed a security law that helped suppress a pro-democracy movement, as just a handful of people defied a heavy police presence and protested during National Day celebrations.
The People's Republic of China celebrates its founding on October 1 with a holiday and carefully choreographed festivities.
But in Hong Kong, it has become a day of grievance for those worried about authoritarian Beijing's intensifying crackdown against its opponents.
Protest has been effectively outlawed for most of this year and Beijing also imposed a strict national security law on the semi-autonomous business hub in June.
Helicopters flying the Chinese and Hong Kong flags buzzed over the harbor on Thursday morning as Chief Executive Carrie Lam and senior mainland officials attended a ceremony ringed by police and security barriers.
"Over the past few months, an indisputable fact in front of everyone is that our society has returned to peace," Lam said in her speech.
"Our country's national security has been protected in Hong Kong and our citizens can again exercise their rights and liberties in accordance with laws."
Last year, the 70th anniversary brought fierce clashes between protesters and police during seven months of democracy demonstrations that upended Hong Kong.
Authorities denied permission for a protest march this year, citing security concerns and an anti-coronavirus ban on more than four people gathering in public.
Lam's administration also suspended September local elections for a year -- one of the few occasions when Hong Kongers get to cast a vote -- citing the risk posed by the pandemic.
A police source told AFP that 6,000 police officers had been drafted in to stop any protests -- double the contingency usually placed on reserve.
'End one-party rule'
Throughout the day, groups of prominent democracy activists held small protests -- deliberately keeping to no more than four people.
"In today's China, those who pursue freedom are suppressed while those doing the suppressing are in power," activist Lee Cheuk-yan told reporters.
One group, surrounded by some 40 police officers, chanted "End one-party rule" and burned a protest petition.
Others gathered outside the heavily guarded Liaison Office that represents Beijing's government in the city.
A day earlier, office director Luo Huining gave a speech calling for more patriotism to be instilled in Hong Kong, saying pride in the motherland was a duty, not a choice.
Police maintained a high presence throughout the city on Thursday, conducting multiple stop and searches.
In the busy shopping hub of Causeway Bay -- which saw many clashes last year -- riot police hoisted banners telling crowds to disperse after they received heckles.
"Today is not a day of celebration... it is time for the world to be aware of how the Communist Party silences the voice of Hong Kong," prominent activist Joshua Wong told reporters shortly before being moved on by officers.
Five people were arrested earlier in the week on suspicion of inciting others to protest and commit violent acts.
For most of this year, protest has been all but impossible in Hong Kong.
On the rare occasions when demonstrations do bubble up, riot police and plain-clothes officers move quickly -- on one day last month nearly 300 people were arrested.
Over the last 16 months, more than 10,000 have been detained during protests with courts facing a backlog of trials, including of many prominent protest leaders.
New security law
The crackdown has been aided by the national security law that China imposed on the city in June.
The broadly worded legislation criminalized expressing certain opinions, deepened the political chill in the city and allowed mainland China's security apparatus to operate openly in Hong Kong for the first time.
The security law has led to sanctions by the United States and condemnation by many other Western nations.
But Beijing and Hong Kong authorities say it is needed to restore stability.
"The national security law will absolutely stop rabble-rousers in Hong Kong from having their capricious way," China's Liaison Office said this week.