Hundreds of thousands of anti-government protesters staged a peaceful protest through central Hong Kong on Sunday in defiance of increasingly threatening rhetoric from Beijing.
After 10 weeks of demonstrations that have sparked the Asian financial hub’s biggest political crisis in decades, the crowds rallied in one of the city’s parks before spilling out into the streets and marching towards the central business district.
The evening ended without any major clashes between protesters and police, a victory for organisers who had hoped to show that protests remain peaceful and enjoy popular support.
Organisers estimated that 1.7m people attended the protest, but numbers were difficult to estimate as participants flowed into nearby roads and streets without passing through the designated park area. The police estimated that at its peak 128,000 gathered in the designated protest zone.
Sunday’s rally followed protests on Saturday, when teachers marched in central Hong Kong and anti-government demonstrators gathered across the harbour in Kowloon.
The peaceful end to both was in contrast to recent weeks, when protests have been characterised by fierce clashes between police and protesters.
Beijing responded to the clashes during past protests between police and protesters by accusing the demonstrators of showing “signs of terrorism”. Chinese state-run media have stepped up the pressure, displaying images of paramilitary forces and armoured vehicles massing just a few kilometres away from Hong Kong across the border.
“Whether the Chinese military will come or not is out of the control of Hong Kong’s 7m citizens . . . It is not for me to be afraid of,” said Raymond Sun, a 56-year-old retired professional, marching as a torrential downpour hit the city.
The protests began as opposition to an extradition law that would allow suspects to be sent to China for trial but quickly expanded into calls for an independent inquiry into alleged police brutality and democratic reforms.
“If we don’t insist this time we might not have other chance to come out,” said Crystal Lam, a 23-year-old who was marching on Sunday. “I don’t want these demonstrations to end just like this — if so, maybe 10 years later, the next generation will have to come out again.”
A police permit for Sunday’s protest stipulated that the rally should remain in the park but the organisers claimed that was an unreasonable restriction given the large expected turnout.
A government spokesperson said in a statement: “The government will begin sincere dialogue with the public, mend social rifts and rebuild social harmony when everything has calmed down.”
While the protests have forced the government to suspend the extradition bill, Hong Kong’s leader Carrie Lam has yet to respond to the movement’s other demands, which aside from the police inquiry and universal suffrage, include the full withdrawal of the legislation and the dropping of charges against protesters previously arrested.
The movement also wants Ms Lam, who was appointed by Beijing through an election by a special committee, to step down.
“The path of resistance is long, because, ultimately, only democratic universal suffrage can fundamentally turn around the current situation of unfettered violence from the regime,” the Civil Human Rights Front, which organised Sunday’s rally and previous mass protests, said in a statement.
The government defended the city’s police, saying the administration “fully supports the police in strictly enforcing the law . . . and bringing violent protesters who have violated the law to justice”.
Last week, protesters brought Hong Kong’s international airport to a halt and also briefly detained and restrained with cable ties men they suspected of being mainland spies in scenes that led some in the movement to rethink their tactics.
“We will continue to protest until the government actively responds to our demands,” said Alison Ip, an office administrator in her thirties at the Kowloon rally on Saturday. She said demonstrators would be unlikely to be deterred by Beijing’s show of force. “We’re already at a point of no return.”
Overseas, supporters of the Hong Kong protesters held rallies over the weekend in cities including Paris, Berlin, Toronto and Melbourne. Pro-Beijing counter-protesters also showed up at some of the events or held their own separate rallies.
Melbourne resident Tim Lam, 27, who has relatives in Hong Kong and supports the pro-democracy movement in the self-governed territory, attended the gathering in the city where police intervened after violent scuffles broke out when counter-protesters arrived.
He said he was “surprised” by the intensity of feeling in the pro-China group, which he said was predominately made up of men in their early 20s and added that the event left him “sad more than angry”.
In Hong Kong, pro-government supporters — including a number of local property magnates — also held rallies to voice support for the police on Saturday.
Powerful business interests — from Hong Kong’s richest man Li Ka-shing to flagship airline Cathay Pacific — have been dragged into the conflict, with Beijing pressing companies to take a clear stand against protesters.
Some younger protesters at the Kowloon rally on Saturday voiced defiance at the prospect of Chinese forces entering Hong Kong.
“Come quickly . . . I am looking forward to [Chinese forces marching in],” said Don, a 16-year-old student, in safety goggles and gas mask protesting in front of the Mongkok police station. Like many protesters, he identified himself by only his first name. “We will burn with the Communist party.”
Many, however, were less certain about what intervention by Beijing would mean for the protests. “I did not think much about that,” said Cindy, a university student. “If they really march in, then this wouldn’t be Hong Kong any more.”
With additional reporting by Primrose Riordan
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