Hundreds of thousands of anti-government protesters joined a mass rally in Hong Kong yesterday, filling major thoroughfares in heavy rain in the eleventh week of what have been often violent demonstrations in the Asian financial hub.
Yesterday’s turnout showed that the movement still has broad-based support despite the ugly scenes witnessed during the past week when protesters occupied the Chinese-ruled city’s airport, for which some activists apologised.
There was an uneasy calm after nightfall, with no violent confrontations and protesters unclear on what would happen next. Police in riot gear checked the IDs of some demonstrators to the west of the Central business district, and there was a large police presence outside the Western District police station.
“They’ve been telling everyone we’re rioters. The march today is to show everyone we are not,” said a 23-year-old named Chris, who works in marketing and was dressed all in black, including a scarf covering his face and baseball cap.
“It does not mean we won’t keep fighting. We will do whatever is necessary to win, but today we take a break, then we reassess.”
One protester shouted at others who were jeering at police, “Today is a peaceful march! Don’t fall into the trap! The world is watching us,” prompting the group to move on.
Anger over a now-suspended bill that would allow criminal suspects in Hong Kong to be extradited to mainland China erupted in June, but the rising unrest has been fuelled by broader worries about the erosion of freedoms guaranteed under the “one country, two systems” formula put in place after Hong Kong’s return from British to Chinese rule in 1997.
Protesters held aloft placards with slogans including “Free Hong Kong!” and “Democracy now!” and umbrellas to shield them from the rain. The crowd in Victoria Park, where the rally started, was peaceful and included elderly people as well as the middle aged, young people and families, with some parents carrying toddlers.
Despite rally organisers not having permission to march, the park could not accommodate the crowd, which thronged the streets around the park. Many protesters headed towards the city’s financial centre, chanting for the city’s Beijing-backed leader, Carrie Lam, to step down.
It was impossible to put an exact figure on the number of protesters but Reuters journalists, reporting from around the territory, put the total at least 200,000.
“It’s bloody hot and it’s raining. It’s a torture just to turn up, frankly. But we have to be here because we have no other choice,” said a 24-year-old student named Jonathan who was at the rally that began in Victoria Park in the Causeway Bay district of Hong Kong island.
“We have to continue until the government finally shows us the respect that we deserve,” he said.
‘WE ARE HONG KONGERS’
Aside from Lam’s resignation, demonstrators are seeking complete withdrawal of the extradition bill, a halt to descriptions of the protests as “rioting”, a waiver of charges against those arrested, an independent inquiry and resumption of political reform.
“When we were young, we didn’t think about it. But my son tells me: After 2047, what will happen to me?,” said a history teacher named Poon, referring to the year when the 50-year agreement enshrining Hong Kong’s separate system will lapse.