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Police keep watch on a street in the Wanchai district of Hong Kong, after the Hong Kong Women Workers' Association cancelled a planned march in the area, on March 5.PETER PARKS/AFP/Getty Images

It was supposed to be Hong Kong’s first major demonstration since the start of the pandemic. After years of limits on public gatherings, hundreds were expected to march for gender equality ahead of International Women’s Day. The authorities had signed off. Everything was a go.

Then, just hours before the event was due to begin, organizers called it off. Police quickly issued a statement saying this voided any permit authorizing the march, so anyone showing up risked arrest for unauthorized assembly.

In the end, no demonstrators turned out, but police did so in force. With nothing to do, officers stood around, occasionally stopping passersby and patting them down or demanding to see their IDs.

Most of those stopped were young people – anyone that could be said to resemble the “black clad radicals” Hong Kong’s authorities insist are poised to flood the streets again, even though the national security law introduced in 2020 effectively ended dissent in the Chinese territory.

While the march organizers did not say as much, that legislation was seen by many as the reason the event was called off. The “letter of no objection” issued by the police for the demonstration included a condition that the organizers ensure the march would not breach the security law, which carries penalties as severe as life imprisonment.

In a statement, the organizers said they tried to reach a “revised agreement” with the police, but could not. After the force publicly warned that unspecified “violent groups” intended to join the protest, few were surprised at the cancellation.

“We feel angry, helpless, sad and discouraged,” the organizers said.

Police spokesman Dennis Cheng would not comment on why the event was cancelled or provide any further information on who exactly the force feared would try to join the march.

The League of Social Democrats, Hong Kong’s sole remaining active opposition group, said four of its members were told by the National Security Department not to join the march or face arrest.

“Under such pressure, we decided not to attend. Yet we still hoped the march would go ahead and the flags of gender equality would fly high on the streets,” the group said in a statement, adding that the event’s cancellation demonstrated that freedom of expression and the right to protest were “in shreds.”

“This is the reality we now live in,” the statement said. “No amount of sugarcoating by the regime can cover up the genuine state of Hong Kong.”

This week saw another procession called off at the last minute. Members of the Hong Kong Taoist Association had planned to march through Kowloon on Sunday but held a small rally instead – after waiting months for a letter of no objection.

Police said they “suggested” the group change its plans after a “full risk assessment” that took into account the aims of the event, “past experiences and the current situation.”

Maya Wang, associate director for Asia at Human Rights Watch, said the authorities appeared to be approving demonstrations – allowing them to claim to be protecting the right to protest – “while intimidating the organizers and participants with jail time, so few would actually turn up.”

Letters of no objection are only required for events involving more than 30 people, but even smaller marches have faced issues.

Hong Konger James Ockenden said he sought permission to organize a march protesting an illegal concrete plant he has covered extensively on his website, Transit Jam, a publication focused on transport and environmental issues. He was warned by police that if more than 30 people turned up, he and other organizers could be prosecuted for holding an illegal assembly, which can result in up to five years in prison.

“That was quite stressful for me,” Mr. Ockenden said. “It’s very difficult to manage. You think 10 people will come, but what if 40 show up? Or what if there’s 30 of us and three people walking by decide to join?”

When he eventually went ahead with his demonstration – in which about 10 people took part – he said police checked participants’ IDs, took video of them and inspected banners and leaflets. “They also read out on video a long list of things I had agreed to,” he said. “It was quite unnerving.”

He said he sympathized with the organizers of the gender equality march, “having this constant threat that you could be prosecuted hanging over your heads” if other protesters joined in or behaved in a certain way.

Speaking earlier this year as Hong Kong eased its restrictions on public gatherings, the city’s security chief, Chris Tang, acknowledged that there were no major demonstrations during the pandemic but reassured residents they can “still express their opinions in accordance with the law.”

But, he added, “our laws must make it unimaginable for people to commit crimes, such that they would not dare to do so.”