Hundreds of thousands of black-clad, masked protesters from all walks of life took part in one of the largest mass rallies of Hong Kong’s six-month-long pro-democracy movement on Sunday, in a show of continued defiance against Chinese rule.
Demonstrators expressed their anger that a sweeping victory for pan-democratic parties in district elections two weeks ago has led to few concessions from the city’s unpopular leader, Carrie Lam, towards demands including more voting rights and an independent inquiry into alleged police brutality.
The resounding election defeat for the pro-Beijing establishment shattered earlier government claims that the city’s “silent majority” was against the protests, while Sunday’s march showed that public support for the protest movement remains high.
“People are still eager to come out, still eager to demonstrate that they are not satisfied,” said Alvin Yeung, a democrat from the Civic Party.
“Hong Kong people have a very clear mind, that winning the elections was not the end of everything,” he added. “We are not asking for the moon, our demands are not so outrageous. For example, a commission of inquiry, are we asking something so unreasonable?”
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Police said just hours before the march on Hong Kong island that they had arrested 11 people and seized a 9mm semi-automatic pistol, as well as other weapons they feared could be used during the rally.
But despite the violent clashes between riot officers and protesters that have marred demonstrations in recent months, many families with young children and old people joined the march that began at the downtown Victoria Park and continued peacefully through the city’s main streets for several hours.
“I’ve been to about 80 percent of the demonstrations. I’m 71. What do I have to be afraid of,” said Johnny, a retired manufacturer. “Today we are fighting for the freedom of Hong Kong and of the Uighurs,” he said, referring to China’s repressed Muslim minority.
The event organisers, the Civil Human Rights Front – the non-violent umbrella group behind large rallies in June – said that some 800,000 people had joined the protest, which also marked this week’s World Human Rights Day. The police force estimated that the march peaked at 183,000.
The demonstrators were at times jubilant, with drums and people dressed as cartoon characters cheering the crowd, some of whom flew Union Jacks and other international flags.
Some hurled abuse at observing police officers who have increasingly become the focus of public anger because of their heavy-handed tactics, but tensions remained comparatively low.
The police took the rare step of granting permission for the mass rally, and officers largely stood to one side as the throngs passed without major incident.
As night fell, the crowd continued to flow steadily through the wide boulevards, torch lights from their phones piercing the darkness.
"I think the CCP’s [Chinese Communist Party] strategy is to wear us down through time. That’s why it’s important for us to come out even after the district elections to make our demands heard,” said a protester in her 20s, who gave her name as Ms Chu.
“In the past six months, the Hong Kong people have become braver and stronger against the police force,” she added. "We want to come out to the march and continue to share our feelings because Hong Kong is very special as a multicultural, international city."
The anti-government movement was initially sparked by a now-withdrawn bill that would have allowed extraditions to the mainland, but it has now spiraled into a wider set of five demands that include universal suffrage and police accountability.
Some 6,000 people have been arrested and hundreds injured during protests that have at times turned violent, and public anger remains high.
While the march ended peacefully around 9pm, some fear that a planned strike on Monday may turn violent.
“We’re now seeking not only our five demands but also retaliation against the police and the government. If political leaders have foreign citizenship it should be revoked. The Hong Kong police should only recruit university graduates,” said protester Sam Cheung, 30, ahead of Sunday’s march.