HONG KONG — Hundreds of thousands of peaceful protesters of all ages returned to the streets of Hong Kong Sunday, in a massive show of solidarity for a movement that appeared on the verge of losing popular support.
Protesters defied torrential rain, a police ban and menacing threats from the Chinese government to come back out for the 11th consecutive weekend of mass demonstrations, transforming the center of the city into a sea of slow moving umbrellas.
Organizers claimed as many as 1.7 million people joined the mass rally that saw protesters throng westwards from Victoria Park through the city center and downtown areas.
It was the first major demonstration following ugly scenes at the city’s airport earlier this week when a small group of protesters detained and beat two men they accused of being undercover police officers, and violently clashed with riot police.
The rally was organized by the Civil Human Rights Front, a more traditional pro-democrat organization which previously put on two huge peaceful marches in June which attracted hundreds of thousands of participants.
One of the slogans of the rally, which began in Victoria Park, was “Hong Kongers Assemble: Peaceful, Rational, and Non-Violent Protesters Stand Out.”
Police had not given permission for protesters to march out of the park to Chater Garden in Central District as planned. But by 6 p.m. local time (6 a.m. ET) protesters had congested several main roads through the city’s main shopping area of Causeway Bay and some had pushed on to Admiralty district, near to the city’s Legislative Council offices.
“I have no idea what comes next but all we can do as citizens is keep going, protest peacefully and let the government and regime know our demands,” said Louis, 43, who works in the IT industry.
A weekend of rallies
Sunday’s rally follows several peaceful demonstrations around the city the day before.
On Saturday, tens of thousands of protesters participated in a pro-democracy march in Kowloon with the aim of “reclaiming the tranquility of the neighborhood,” organizers told CNN. Protesters marched from To Kwa Wan to Hung Hom: two areas that have recently seen an influx of Chinese mainland tourists.
Later on, a group of protesters broke off and gathered in front of the police station in nearby Mong Kok — one of the world’s most densely populated areas. After police began clearing them out, the protesters left without further confrontation.
In a separate part of town, an estimated 22,000 Hong Kong school teachers and supporters attended a morning march to the Chief Executive’s residence as part of anti-government demonstrators, according to organizers.
Meanwhile, about 108,000 people participated in a pro-police rally in Tamar Park, near to the Legislative Council offices, police said. Supporters of the police held banners such as “Save Hong Kong,” “Police add oil” and “Hong Kong add oil.”
Ahead of Sunday’s rally, video surfaced appearing to show Chinese police and armed police forces holding a joint training in the neighboring mainland city of Shenzhen, according to Chinese state media People’s Daily.
In a video, police can be heard chanting “Stop the violence and repent” in Cantonese and “We listen to the party’s command! We can win the battle! We forge exemplary conduct!” in Mandarin Chinese, a standard chant of the Chinese Army.
There is no indication that the Chinese military or People’s Armed Police members are set to enter Hong Kong. But state media has repeatedly brought up that possibility and propaganda videos of soldiers training in makeshift riot scenes have been heavily promoted by the government in the mainland.
Focus on police
Hong Kong police remained noticeably absent from the protest, with only a small contingent around the Chinese Liaison office in Sheung Wan.
Forceful police tactics used during previous protests has spurred greater protests. Last weekend saw tear gas fired inside a subway station and a woman allegedly hit in the face with a beanbag round, outraging protesters and driving turnout at the airport just as things appeared to be calming down somewhat.
Speaking to CNN at a background briefing this week, senior police officers defended their use of force in response to what they characterized as violent, criminal behavior, and rejected calls for an independent investigation into their handling of the situation.
They also stood by the use of undercover officers to snatch protesters during last weekend’s violence, action which helped fuel the paranoia and suspicion at the airport on Tuesday.
But officers were also clear on who they put the onus on solving the ongoing unrest: The government. “This is a political issue. A political issue needs a political solution,” a senior police commander said.
Public relations battle
“The Hong Kong economy faced significant downward pressure in the second quarter. The situation has turned even more austere in recent months,” the Hong Kong government said in a statement following the announcement of one-off relief measures for some sectors.
The move was greeted with something of a shrug by local media, which noted it did not go far enough to address the underling political and economic causes of the protests, including longstanding complaints about stalled political reform and the difficulty young people have in getting on the housing ladder.
Officials have struggled to get their message across during the unrest, with often staid press conferences and statements appearing in stark contrast to the vibrant, inventive posters and flyers adopted by the protesters.
Tuesday’s violence was the first major misstep by the movement, and there were signs many recognized how badly the ugly scenes were for their cause. On Wednesday, some protesters gathered at the airport with posters apologizing for their behavior, and also released a statement promising to reflect and do better.
In Chinese state media, which has been consistently playing up violence and underplaying police use of force, photos of the two detained men have been prominent all week, particularly one man — later identified as Fu Guohao, a reporter for the nationalist tabloid Global Times — whose defiant statement to protesters, “I support the Hong Kong police, you can beat me now,” has become a rallying cry for critics of the protests in mainland China.
“Many mainland journalists feel threatened in Hong Kong and they feel radical protesters are very hostile toward them,” Global Times editor Hu Xijin told CNN this week. Hu has been a leading critic of the protests, accusing the US government and western media of stoking the unrest.
“I think our level of support for the government is comparable to yours to the pro-democracy camp,” he said.
His newspaper has run over a dozen articles about Fu’s treatment at the airport since Tuesday, highlighting the incident as proof of the chaos it has long claimed the protests are creating.
The onus will be on the protest movement to prove this weekend that it can — as members of the anti-government movement themselves have promised — do better.