Tens of thousands of Hong Kong democracy activists gathered Sunday for a major rally to show the city’s leaders their protest movement still attracts wide public support despite mounting violence and increasingly stark warnings from Beijing.
The city has entered its 11th week of demonstrations that have plunged the financial hub into crisis with images of masked black-clad protesters engulfed by tear gas during street battles with riot police stunning a city once renowned for its stability.
Communist-ruled mainland China has taken an increasingly hardline tone towards the protesters, decrying the “terrorist-like” actions of a violent hardcore minority among the demonstrators.
Despite the near-nightly clashes with police, the movement has won few concessions from Beijing or the city’s unelected leadership.
On Tuesday, protesters blocked passengers from boarding flights at the city’s airport and later assaulted two men they accused of being Chinese spies.
The images damaged a campaign that until then had largely targeted the police or government institutions, and prompted an apology from some of the protest groups.
Sunday’s rally in torrential rain at the city’s Victoria Park is an attempt to wrestle the narrative of the protest back. It is intended to be a “rational, non-violent” demonstration, according to organisers the Civil Human Rights Front, the driving force behind record-breaking rallies in June and July that saw hundreds of thousands of people hit the streets.
Police have given permission for the rally to go ahead but banned a proposed march.
Protesters flouted that order, flooding the streets on Sunday afternoon as they marched through the heart of Hong Kong island despite driving rain.
Protesters began sprawled across locations away from the authorised protest zone of Victoria Park at about 4.30pm. Marshals said they are leaving the area so other protesters can enter the packed park to take part in the approved rally, the South China Morning Post reported.
Marchers reached Wan Chai at about the same time, while the head of the march reached Admiralty, near the government headquarters and the legislature.
Former legislator “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-hung and pro-democracy media boss Jimmy Lai Chee-ying were among protesters, the SCMP reported.
Previous bans on marches have been disregarded by protesters, leading to clashes with riot police.
“We expect a huge number of participants … we hope to show to the world Hong Kong people can be totally peaceful,” Bonnie Leung, a spokeswoman for the Civil Human Rights Front, said before the rally began. “If Beijing and Hong Kong’s tactic is to wait for our movement to die, they are wrong … we will soldier on.”
China’s propaganda apparatus has seized on the weeks of violence, with state media churning out a deluge of damning articles, pictures and videos.
State media also ran images of military personnel and armoured personnel carriers across the border in Shenzhen, prompting the United States to warn Beijing against sending in troops.
Analysts say any intervention by Chinese security forces would be a reputational and economic disaster for China.
During smaller protest marches on Saturday – which ended without large-scale clashes – many protesters chanted “See you in Victoria Park!” as they left the streets. The park has long been used as the staging point for the city’s previous democracy protests.
The latest rallies were sparked by opposition to a plan to allow extraditions to the mainland, but have since morphed into a wider call for democratic rights in the semi-autonomous city.
Under a deal signed with Britain, authoritarian China agreed to allow Hong Kong to keep its unique freedoms when it was handed back in 1997.
But many Hong Kongers feel those freedoms are being eroded, especially since China’s hardline president Xi Jinping came to power.
In the last two months millions of people have hit the streets while clashes have broken out between police and small groups of hardcore protesters.
Battles between police firing tear gas and rubber bullets – and hardcore protesters using rocks, Molotov cocktails and slingshots – have since become routine in the city. Both sides trade the blame for provoking the violence.
Beyond suspending the extradition bill, Beijing and city leader Carrie Lam have shown no desire to meet key demands such as an inquiry into police violence, the complete withdrawal of the bill and an amnesty.
Beijing has turned the screws on Hong Kong’s businesses, pressuring them to toe the line and condemn the protesters.
On Friday, Cathay Pacific announced the shock resignation of CEO Rupert Hogg after the carrier was excoriated by Beijing because some staff supported the pro-democracy protests.
A day later the “Big Four” accountancy firms scrambled to distance themselves from a advert placed in a newspaper purportedly by employees saying they supported the protests.
Organizer Lee Hin-long said that aside from their call for five longstanding demands in regard to extradition bill, people also want the Carrie Lam government to address overcrowding, as the Kowloon district has too many tourists from mainland China. Many disputes had occurred in recent years between local residents and Chinese tourists over disturbances to people’s livelihoods, Lee said.
Thousands of teachers were soaked in pouring rainfall on Saturday morning at an event called “Safeguard the next generation: Let our conscience speak”, organized by Hong Kong Professional Teachers’ Union, the city’s largest teacher’s organization, which is also a pro-democracy group.
The march started at Charter Garden and went to Government House, the residence of chief executive Carrie Lam.
The union said around 22,000 people participated. They reiterated the key demands of Hong Kongers, notably for the now-suspended extradition bill to be scrapped and for an end to violence.
On Hong Kong Island there was an event called “Oppose Violence, Save Hong Kong” organized by pro-government group Safeguard Hong Kong in Tamar Park in Admiralty.
A number of pro-Beijing figures, including former chief secretary Henry Tang and former health chief Ko Wing-man attended. They called for support for the police and an end to violence.
They showed a video clip of protesters throwing bricks and clashing with police in recent rallies.
Many thousands of people also turned out for a rally in Central on Friday night, which called for international support, especially the United States and Britain.
The organizers, a group of 12 higher education institutions and online citizens from LIHKG, a local Reddit-like forum, estimated the turnout of 60,000 while police put the figure at 7,100. People were seen waving US and UK flags at the site.
Organizers want the US Congress to pass the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, which would sanction officials who undermine the city’s freedom.
There were also calls for the UK to declare that China has breached the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1997 by restricting the special region’s autonomy. Students plan to travel to the US and UK to lobby for these goals.
The Beijing government has often alleged that the home-grown protests are backed by foreign governments.
Meanwhile, a poll showed that many secondary students would support a boycott of classes when school opens next month.
The poll – organized by groups of young people, secondary students and the political party Demosisto – involved interviews with more than 19,470 students. Nearly 60% of respondents would support a boycott of classes on the first day of school on September 2.
The groups called on students to have a one-day boycott of classes every week indefinitely with the format to be decided according to students’ needs. They said schools should not to punish students for doing this.
The Hong Kong Professional Teachers’ Union backed the students’ plan. Vice-president Ip Kin-yuen said they would “respect and understand” if students decide to strike and asked schools to accommodate such events.
However, Education Secretary Kevin Yeung wrote on his Facebook page that the government opposed a class boycott, saying it would affect the normal operation of schools and students’ learning opportunities. It would also generate pressure among students which could damage the harmony at schools, he said.
Yeung said while he understood that students may have different views on social issues, there were better ways to express their views and students should be protected from political interference at schools.