Tens of thousands of protesters poured into one of Hong Kong’s busiest shopping districts on Sunday, braving a downpour to join an anti-government rally in the eleventh week of what have been often violent demonstrations in the Asian financial hub.
Sunday’s heavy turnout indicated that the movement still has broad-based support, despite the ugly scenes witnessed during the past week, when protesters occupied the city’s airport, for which some activists apologised.
“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 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.
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.
Gathered in Victoria Park at the start of the rally, protesters held aloft placards with slogans including “Free Hong Kong!” and “Democracy now!”, and umbrellas to shield them from the rain. The crowd was peaceful and included the elderly, 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 and many headed west towards the city’s financial centre, chanting for the city’s Beijing-backed leader, Carrie Lam, to step down.
The crowd at the Central subway station, one of the city’s busiest, was at a near-standstill on Sunday afternoon as a sea of people dressed in black T-shirts waited to board trains. The group erupted in cheers and chanted “Revolution of our time!” in Cantonese when an empty train finally arrived.
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 Mrs. Poon, referring to the year when the 50-year agreement enshrining Hong Kong’s separate system will lapse.
“I will come again and again and again. We do not know how any of this is going to end. We will still fight,” she said.
‘WE ARE HONG KONGERS’
Police have come under criticism for using increasingly aggressive tactics to break up demonstrations, and on Sunday some people handed out balloons resembling eyeballs, a reference to the injury suffered by a female medic who was hospitalised after being hit by a pellet round in the eye.
On Saturday, however, a demonstration in support of the government attracted what organisers said was 476,000 people, although police put the number of attendees at 108,000.
The anti-government protests present one of the biggest challenges facing Chinese President Xi Jinping since he came to power in 2012. And with the ruling Communist Party preparing to mark the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic on Oct 1, the crisis in Hong Kong has come at a sensitive time.
Beijing has struck an increasingly strident tone over the protests, accusing foreign countries including the United States of fomenting unrest.
Scenes of Chinese paramilitary troops training at a stadium in the city of Shenzhen, which borders Hong Kong, gave a clear warning that mainland intervention by force is possible.
Last week, protesters who occupied the terminal at Hong Kong’s airport forced the cancellation of nearly 1,000 flights and detained two men they thought were pro-government sympathisers, prompting Beijing to liken the behaviour to terrorism.
“We are Hong Kongers. We are here for our future. We feel for the teenagers,” said Frances Chan, 60, a retired journalist attending Sunday’s rally.
“Actually, we want peace and freedom,” she said. “If the government would just listen to the five requests, things would calm down.”