HONG KONG: 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.
Ten weeks of demonstrations have plunged the financial hub into crisis with images of masked black-clad protesters engulfed by tear gas during street battles with 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 of the protest groups.
Sunday’s rally 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.
Previous bans on marches have been ignored by protesters, leading to clashes with riot police.
“We expect a huge number of participants … we hope to show to the world Hong Kong people can be totally peaceful,” Bonnie Leung, a spokeswoman for the Civil Human Rights Front told reporters.
“If Beijing and Hong Kong’s tactic is to wait for our movement to die, they are wrong … we will soldier on.”
China’s propaganda apparatus has seized on the weeks of violence, with state media churning out a deluge of damning articles, pictures and videos.
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.
During smaller protest marches on Saturday – which ended without large-scale clashes – many protesters chanted “See you in Victoria Park!” as they left the streets.
Tens of thousands of protesters massed in the park as the rally started on Sunday afternoon, while many others thronged the nearby streets in a show of defiance expected to stretch into the evening.
“I hope more people can make a step forward,” protester Ray Cheung, 30, told AFP.
“We have tried many times with peaceful approaches… I really hope the government can listen to us.”
The unprecedented political crisis was sparked by opposition to a plan to allow extraditions to the 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.
In the last two months millions of people have hit the streets.
Battles between police firing tear gas and rubber bullets – and hardcore protesters using rocks, Molotov cocktails and slingshots – have since become routine in the city.
Both sides trade the blame for provoking the violence.
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.