Hundreds of thousands of people marched through central Hong Kong on Sunday in the biggest pro-democracy demonstration in the Asian financial centre since millions took to the streets when the protests began in June.
The large turnout at the protest, the first street march in central Hong Kong approved by the police since mid-August, comes despite Beijing’s efforts to stifle demands for greater political freedoms in the territory. The protest wrapped up peacefully, a rare outcome in the months of often violent demonstrations. It comes two weeks after pro-democracy parties swept local elections in Hong Kong, the first electoral test of the city’s pro-democracy movement since the movement began.
Demonstrators chanted “fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong” while riot police kept vigil from the side streets and on pedestrian bridges. The organisers estimated 800,000 had joined the protest. Police estimates suggested there were less than 200,000. By early evening, three hours after the protest began, thousands of people were still joining the march.
The peaceful but serious atmosphere at Sunday’s protest recalled the movement’s beginning, when as many as 2m people flooded central Hong Kong to oppose an extradition bill that would have allowed suspects to be tried in mainland China.
In the ensuing months, the protests have increasingly descended into violence while the movement has expanded its demands to include universal suffrage and an inquiry into alleged police brutality. “I am here to fight for democracy and freedom,” said a 74-year-old protester, who identified himself only as Mr Chu. “We have been suppressed by an authoritarian government.”
On Sunday, police said they arrested 11 people and seized “a large amount of weapons” including a pistol and 100 bullets. “Intelligence suggested that the gang planned to use the weapons during the public procession today and to frame police,” the force said in a statement.
The government sounded a more conciliatory note, however, saying it had learned from the failed extradition bill, which Hong Kong’s leader, chief executive Carrie Lam, later withdrew. “In view of the social controversies and disputes as well as other problems brought about by the legislative amendment exercise, the . . . government has learned its lesson and will humbly listen to and accept criticism,” a spokesman said in a statement.
Since June, protesters have staged more than 900 demonstrations, processions and public assemblies and nearly 6,000 people have been arrested.
Sunday’s strong turnout would only reinforce Chinese president Xi Jinping’s view that Beijing needed to take a tougher line on the protests, said Willy Lam, a political scientist at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “Xi Jinping has indicated adamantly there will not be any political freedom, just the opposite,” Mr Lam said. “The scene is set for more confrontation.”
He said Beijing would increase its use of force by boosting the police and other tactics, such as increasing “patriotic education” in Hong Kong’s schools and mainland Chinese immigration into the territory.
“I think Beijing now understands that 22 years after the handover they have failed to win the hearts and minds of Hong Kong people,” he said.
On Saturday, in a sign of Beijing’s anger with the US, immigration officials barred two senior officials from the American Chamber of Commerce (AmCham) in Hong Kong from entering Macau. The former Portuguese colony is located an hour by ferry from Hong Kong.
The two officials, Tara Joseph and Robert Grieves, AmCham’s president and chairman in Hong Kong respectively, were heading separately to the annual AmCham Macau Ball.
The move follows the passage of legislation in Washington recently scrutinising China’s human rights record in Hong Kong and the western region of Xinjiang. Three of the six large casino companies in the Chinese territory are either wholly or partly owned by American interests.