Hong Kong’s leader vowed to resist pressure from hostile foreign governments and leverage on Beijing’s strong support, as the city marked National Day with official celebrations and muted protests under a heavy police presence on the streets that led to scores of arrests.

Authorities had been bracing for potential chaos amid online calls for mass anti-government protests and radical action, but there were only scattered gatherings in defiance of a police ban on what would have been the annual October 1 rally.

As of 10pm on Thursday, at least 86 people had been arrested across the city for various offences, mostly for illegal gatherings in Causeway Bay, and the 6,000 officers out in force far outnumbered any pockets of dissent.

At an official morning reception to mark the 71st anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, Chief Executive Carrie Lam
Cheng Yuet-ngor stressed the need for a stable and safe society, learning from the experience of last year’s social unrest triggered by her since-withdrawn extradition bill and the impact of the national security law that Beijing imposed three months ago.

“If we are to keep Hong Kong moving forward … [we must] correctly understand the relationship between one country and two systems, and act in accordance with the constitution and the Basic Law,” she said.

“No matter how severe some foreign governments, holding double standards, are going to level unjustified accusations, or aggressively impose further sanctions, I and my relevant colleagues will continue to discharge our duty to safeguard national security in accordance with the law, without fear or anxiety.”

Lam also said the sweeping security legislation had helped restore stability, and the new law was repeatedly cited as a warning by frontline police officers facing off against those trying to protest on the streets.

Hong Kong leader hails 'return to peace' on China's National Day

The Beijing-drafted law, which took effect on June 30, bans acts of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces.

The city’s economic recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic, meanwhile, would require new approaches, Lam said, repeatedly highlighting the support of the central government.

The reception was held at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre in Wan Chai, and in its Grand Hall, tables of four were set up to abide by social-distancing rules.

Before the reception, Lam and hundreds of officials, politicians, diplomats and business representatives attended a flag-raising ceremony at Golden Bauhinia Square outside the exhibition centre.

It was a sharp contrast with October 1 last year, when the flag-raising ceremony was held at the square but officials and guests had to stay in the exhibition centre to watch it on television due to security concerns as the city was rocked by protests.

The Civil Human Rights Front had planned this year’s National Day rally to show support for 12 Hong Kong fugitives captured at sea by mainland authorities while fleeing to Taiwan, but the activist group was denied permission on public health grounds.

No major clashes or outbreaks of violence were reported on Thursday, as police moved quickly to stop any protest action and break up big groups, while regularly stopping and searching people.

The bulk of the arrests were made in Causeway Bay, where 74 people were detained on suspicion of taking part in unauthorised assemblies. Four of them were district councillors.

Others were accused of possessing an offensive weapon, being unable to show valid identification, holding fake documents and disorderly conduct in public, among other charges.

Another 20 people were fined for violating rules banning gatherings of more than four people.

Protesters in Causeway Bay kept their movements fluid, scattering across the district, with some joining brief chanting and quickly leaving as police officers approached.

At around 3.30pm, riot police briefly raised the purple flag warning against acts that might breach the national security law, after people gathered near Great George Street and chanted the slogan “Liberate Hong Kong; revolution of our times”.

The flag was raised again at around 4pm as officers warned protesters they could have violated the sweeping new law after some shouted “rogue cops” and cursed their families. Inciting hatred against the authorities is considered a crime under the law.

Earlier, the blue flag warning against unauthorised assembly was raised several times, with around 40 mostly young people being detained by officers outside the Fashion Walk shopping centre.

Student Max Jin was among those out protesting in Causeway Bay, playing Glory to Hong Kong, the de facto anthem of the protest movement, on his recorder.

The 18-year-old noted that the lyrics of the song, which has been banned in schools, were taboo under the new law.

“Some have replaced the lyrics with numbers. I decided to play the melody with my recorder,” he said.

By 7pm, most of the protesters in Causeway Bay were gone, but police were still stopping and searching people near the Sogo department store.

Police also condemned two protesters accused of hurling petrol bombs onto Lung Cheung Road in Wong Tai Sin at around 3pm.

“The evil acts of the rioters have severely jeopardised the personal safety of road users and constituted a breach of the peace,” police wrote on their social media platform.

A year ago, China’s grand celebration to mark the 70th anniversary of communist rule was marred by violent protests in Hong Kong, with a police officer opening fire for the first time at an 18-year-old protester.