HONG KONG — The appeal of democratic ideas drew thousands of protesters into the streets of Hong Kong on Tuesday in a defiant but largely peaceful march advocating free and open elections for the territory’s chief executive.
A nearly solid river of protesters, most of them young, poured out of Victoria Park through the afternoon and into the evening, heading for the skyscraper-lined canyons of downtown Hong Kong, Asia’s top financial center. There, hundreds staged a sit-in into the early morning hours Wednesday, intent on blocking off a portion of a busy thoroughfare and awaiting the morning rush hour, when hordes of people would show up for work.
Shouting slogans in Cantonese such as “change comes from the people” the demonstrators, mostly young people, largely stood their ground, even after police warned them that they were in violation of the law. Through the day Tuesday, the protesters showed their determination by waiting unflinchingly and with barely a complaint under a succession of deluges for a chance to walk through downtown Hong Kong, carrying banners calling for the introduction of full democracy and reading “Say No to Communist China.”
And even as organizers boasted of record crowds, they insisted that the protest was merely a dress rehearsal for much larger sit-in protests that may happen later this year, should the Chinese government refuse to allow free elections in the former British colony.
The march came days after nearly 800,000 residents participated in an informal vote on making the selection of the city’s top official more democratic, a vote that Beijing dismissed as illegal. It also followed the Chinese Cabinet’s release three weeks ago of a so-called white paper that asserted broad central government authority over Hong Kong, angering many residents.
Beijing had promised Hong Kong a “high degree of autonomy” before Britain returned the territory to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, and the bluntly worded white paper has set off a furious backlash. That backlash has coincided with a contentious debate over how to introduce universal suffrage — one person, one vote — for Hong Kong’s chief executive, to be chosen in elections in 2017.
Tuesday’s protest appeared to rival in size the largest democracy march in Hong Kong’s history, which was held in 2003, when the deadly SARS virus outbreak and a six-year decline in the housing market produced widespread discontent. The 2003 protest, which lasted seven hours, drew at least 500,000 people, according to organizers, while police estimated that 350,000 were on the streets at the peak.
Organizers of Tuesday’s march put their estimate at 510,000 people, though they said the crowd was fluid, with a continuous stream from Victoria Park to the heart of downtown for nearly eight hours. A police spokeswoman said late Tuesday evening that the maximum number of people marching at any given time was 98,600. But the spokeswoman said she did not have an estimate for the number of participants overall.
July 1 is a public holiday in Hong Kong, and large-scale protests on the date have become an annual tradition since the giant march in 2003. The current demonstrators, drawn out by social media, are younger. They are also more skeptical of what they read in mainstream media and less interested in legal compromises than previous Hong Kong protesters.
“We believe to change society, we need not our words to appeal to politicians, but to use activism to pressure them,” said Joshua Wong, the 17-year-old leader of Scholarism, a student activist group.
At the same time, Beijing’s local allies have taken a harder line, echoing a shift in mainland China. President Xi Jinping has ratcheted up detentions and prosecutions of human rights advocates and other activists, as well as officials accused of corruption, since assuming power in November 2012.
The Hong Kong government issued a statement late Tuesday saying it would include the desires of the protesters as it considers way to introduce universal suffrage in the next elections for chief executive. But the statement reaffirmed the government’s position that Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, the Basic Law, requires that a nominating committee control who will appear on the ballot for that election.
The protesters have called for “civil nomination,” arguing that the public should be allowed to propose candidates who would automatically be approved by the nominating committee. By contrast, Beijing wants a powerful nominating committee with a carefully chosen membership that will vet candidates based on their “patriotism,” a term used to reflect loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party.
Looming over the dispute is the specter of the People’s Liberation Army. “A showdown is getting more and more inevitable by the day, and some degree of violence is imminent,” said Lau Nai-keung, one of Beijing’s most prominent allies in Hong Kong. “If worst comes to worst, the PLA will come out of its barracks.”
Several people said they had made a special effort to come to this year’s march, despite having stayed away in past years. “It’s because of the actions done by the Chinese government,” said Ian Tseng, an office worker in his 20s.
Occupy Central With Love and Peace, another pro-democracy group, has been threatening to fill the streets of downtown Hong Kong later this year and engage in a campaign of civil disobedience until the government issues a broadly acceptable plan for greater democracy. The group held a vote last month in which nearly a quarter of Hong Kong’s registered voters participated, choosing among three options, all of which included civil nomination.East Asia - Asia - China - Greater China - Beijing - China government - Hong Kong - Xi Jinping - Hong Kong government