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 financial hub has been plunged into crisis by ten weeks of demonstrations, with images of masked black-clad protesters engulfed by tear gas during street battles against 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 protest groups.
Sunday’s rally, which started at the city’s Victoria Park, is an attempt to wrestle the narrative of the protest back.
It is 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.
“If Beijing and Hong Kong’s tactic is to wait for our movement to die, they are wrong… we will soldier on,” CHRF spokeswoman Bonnie Leung told reporters.
China’s propaganda apparatus has seized on the weeks of violence, with state media churning out a deluge of damning articles, pictures and videos.
– Blame game –
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.
But Hong Kong’s police force are under intense pressure, stretched by flashmob protests and criticised for perceived heavy-handed policing including the use of tear gas, rubber bullets and beating demonstrators — incidents that have pinballed across social media.
“I think the way police have dealt with this is absolutely out of order. You can make your own judgement based on the many videos out there,” protester James Leung told AFP.
Others recognised the billowing violence, which has seen hardcore protesters using rocks, Molotov cocktails and slingshots against the police, has driven the pro-democracy movement into an uncomfortable direction.
“There are some expressing extreme views,” rally-goer Ray Cheng, 30, told AFP.
“But we have tried many times with peaceful approaches… I really hope the government can listen to us.”
– Unprecedented crisis –
The unprecedented political crisis was sparked by opposition to a plan to allow extraditions to the Chinese mainland.
But protests 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 chipped away, especially since China’s hardline president Xi Jinping came to power.
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 an advert placed in a newspaper purportedly by employees saying they supported the protests.