Tens of thousands of people rallied in support of Hong Kong’s police and pro-Beijing leadership on Saturday in a vivid illustration of the polarisation coursing through the city after weeks of anti-government demonstrations.
The rally was staged just hours after the police reported that they had uncovered a homemade laboratory making high-powered explosives. A 27-year-old man has been arrested and pro-independence materials were also discovered.
For more than a month, Hong Kong has been rocked by huge and largely peaceful protests, as well as a series of separate violent confrontations with police.
The demonstrations have been sparked by a controversial proposed law that would have allowed extradition to mainland China and other countries. The bill has since been suspended.
But that has done little to quell public anger which has evolved into a wider movement calling for democratic reforms and universal suffrage in the semi-autonomous financial hub.
This latest rally was a moment for the establishment to muster their own supporters.
A predominantly older crowd was joined by families and younger residents, waving Chinese flags and holding banners supporting the police.
“Friends who used violence say they love Hong Kong too, but we absolutely cannot approve of their way of expressing themselves,” said Sunny Wong, 42, who works in the insurance industry.
A 60-year-old woman surnamed Leung believed that protesters who stormed and vandalized the legislature, or local government parliament, earlier this month must be held responsible for their actions.
“I really dislike people using violence on others … it was so extreme,” she said.
Police estimated a turnout of 103,000 people at the peak of the rally, while local media cited organizers as saying 316,000 attended.
Hong Kong’s police are in the midst of a major crisis over their reputation.
With no political solution on the table from the city’s pro-Beijing leaders, they have become enmeshed in a seemingly intractable cycle of clashes with protesters who have continued to hit the streets in massive numbers for six weeks.
Demonstrators and rights groups have accused riot police of using excessive force, including tear gas and rubber bullets, and public anger against the force is boiling over.
In their defense, the police insist their crowd control responses have been proportionate and point to injured officers as proof that a hardcore minority of protesters mean them harm.
There is growing frustration among the force’s exhausted rank and file that neither the city’s leaders nor Beijing, seem to have any idea how to end the crisis.
Chinese state media and powerful pro-Beijing groups threw their weight behind the pro-police rally.
Saturday’s edition of Hong Kong’s staunchly pro-Beijing newspaper Ta Kung Pao ran a front-page encouraging readers to join with the headline: “Kick away the violence.”
But while the pro-government protests have mustered decent crowds, they have paled in comparison with the huge pro-democracy marches that have regularly drawn hundreds of thousands of people.
Anti-government protesters are planning another large march on Sunday and say they have no plan to back down until key demands are met.
Earlier on Saturday, tensions were raised after the police revealed that they had discovered a homemade laboratory making high-powered explosives.
“We are dealing with a homemade laboratory for the manufacture of high explosive, specifically TATP,” Superintendent Alick McWhirter, a bomb squad specialist, told the media.
“This is an extremely sensitive and extremely powerful high explosive. It will cause exceptional amounts of damage when used,” he added.
TATP requires skill to manufacture but has been used in a number of major terror attacks, including the 2005 London suicide bombings and the recent deadly Easter attacks on hotels and churches in Sri Lanka earlier this year.
McWhirter said his team had carried out at least one controlled explosion.
Items also displayed by police after the raid included a T-shirt with the logo of the Hong Kong National Front, a pro-independence group, as well as leaflets related to anti-government protests.
The Hong Kong National Front, a small fringe group, released a statement on Facebook saying the man arrested was a member but added it had no knowledge of any explosives.
Tensions have increased during the summer. Under the 1997 handover deal with the British, China promised to allow Hong Kong to keep key liberties such as its independent judiciary and freedom of speech.
But many say that the agreement is already being curtailed, citing the disappearance into mainland custody of dissident booksellers, the disqualification of prominent politicians and the jailing of democracy protest leaders.
Authorities have also resisted calls for the city’s leader to be directly elected by the people.