HONG KONG — One year ago, China’s National Day on Oct. 1 was a day of protest and turmoil in Hong Kong. Demonstrators set fires and blockaded streets. The police responded with tear gas and pepper spray. One officer shot a young demonstrator with a live bullet.
The holiday on Thursday once again brought protesters to the streets of Hong Kong. This time, however, their numbers were far smaller, and they were smothered by thousands of police officers. The police corralled and searched dozens of people at a time, effectively quashing all but the briefest expressions of dissent.
The stark contrast from one year to the next shows how the Hong Kong authorities have used social distancing rules, an overwhelming police presence and a sweeping national security law imposed on the city by Beijing at the end of June to silence pro-democracy rallies. Public discontent remains high in Hong Kong, but displaying it is increasingly risky.
The police had banned protests on Thursday, citing coronavirus concerns, so activists looked for creative ways to skirt the restrictions. Some demonstrations looked more like performance art than the seas of people with thunderous chants that were hallmarks of last year’s protests.
Several demonstrators stood in the streets of Causeway Bay, a shopping district, holding up copies of Apple Daily, a pro-democracy newspaper, as though they were reading them. The papers showed full-page ads with slogans like “Protect the children, hold on to your conscience.” A teenage boy played popular protest tunes on a recorder at a crowded intersection as some demonstrators sang along.
The police targeted many young people, including some who wore black, a color associated with the protest movement, herding them behind a security cordon near luxury stores. A number of older residents and people clutching grocery bags were also rounded up.
Officers unfurled blue banners that warned against unauthorized gatherings. They hoisted purple banners when some people chanted protest slogans that the authorities have said could potentially violate the new security law.
By midafternoon, the police had blocked off large parts of Causeway Bay and prevented pedestrians from lingering. They arrested at least 60 people, including two district council members, on suspicion of taking part in an unauthorized assembly.
The police said they had seized a sharp knife as well as rods, masks and protest stickers. Officers were also investigating reports that Molotov cocktails had been thrown onto a major road in the Kowloon district.
Before the holiday, Luo Huining, the director of China’s powerful representative office in Hong Kong, said it was important for the semiautonomous region’s young people and civil servants to feel more patriotic. He called for more education on topics like national security, Chinese history and culture.
“As a Chinese person, loving the country is not a choice, but a duty and the right course,” he said in a speech on Wednesday.
Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, said during a National Day gathering on Thursday that the relative calm showed the value of the national security legislation. “Over the past three months, the plain truth is, and it is obvious to see, that stability has been restored to society while national security has been safeguarded,” she said.
Mrs. Lam also asserted, again, that the city’s residents continued to enjoy basic rights and freedoms. Activists and academics have challenged the government’s stance, noting that the security law — with vaguely defined political crimes like subversion — was being used to target speech that had long been protected.
Some protesters had planned to rally in support of 12 people from Hong Kong who were being held in the neighboring mainland city of Shenzhen on accusations of illegal boundary crossing. The group, which included people who had been charged in Hong Kong for acts committed during last year’s protests, had sought to escape to Taiwan by boat in August when they were caught by the Chinese Coast Guard.
On Wednesday, prosecutors in Shenzhen authorized the continued detention of the 12 Hong Kong residents. Two of them were charged with organizing an illegal boundary crossing, which carries a sentence of up to seven years in prison, while the remaining 10 were charged with crossing a boundary illegally, which carries up to a year in prison. That means they are likely to face trial in mainland China.
The police warned protesters against violating a ban on groups of more than four people, but did not interfere when a group of a few dozen government supporters gathered in the Wan Chai district to sing the Chinese national anthem and wave national flags.