HONG KONG — Thousands of civil servants and backers rallied Friday in an unprecedented show of support for protests over Hong Kong’s handling of its worst political crisis in decades.
The action came ahead of more unauthorized demonstrations planned for this weekend, when protesters and police are likely to face off again in potentially violent street battles.
Friday’s rally marked the first time government workers have protested openly, revealing the depth of anger in Hong Kong. Participants, who were authorized to rally only in a small square in central Hong Kong, spilled out onto surrounding roads. Many stayed despite pouring rain, handing out fliers for a planned general strike on Monday.
“Hong Kongers, fight on! Civil servants, fight on!” they shouted. “Revolution of our times!”
The protests began months ago over now-shelved plans to allow extraditions to mainland China. But they have now grown to include demands for an independent investigation into police use of force and the resignation of Carrie Lam, the city’s leader, while reviving a movement calling for true democracy in Hong Kong.
“Given the current political situation in Hong Kong, there are no options” to be neutral, said an open letter, purportedly from civil servants from the Hong Kong government’s information services department. “To remain neutral is to be an accomplice to acts of oppression, bowing to the reign of terror.”
One 36-year old demonstrator who wanted to be identified only as a member of the Hong Kong Disciplined Services — which includes police, firefighters and immigration, customs and correctional officers — said he hesitated to attend for fear of losing his job. But in the end, he said, he decided he would have felt ashamed of himself if he had stayed home.
Many things have happened in Hong Kong over the last two months that “conflict with the core values of a civil servant, or indeed even a regular person,” he said. “The more united we are, the more the government will realize they cannot do anything to harm us.”
The latest protest came as police arrested eight people, ages 24 to 31, on suspicion of possessing offensive weapons and bombmaking materials. Among them was Andy Chan, the founder of a political party that advocates independence for Hong Kong. The semiautonomous city is governed under a “one country, two systems” arrangement within China, but that system has come under strain as Beijing exerts increasing authority over the financial hub.
Police said they had found smoke bombs, materials to make molotov cocktails, and bows and arrows, which they determined were “related to the protests.”
“We see online that there are netizens posting on how to make these weapons and who have said they will use said weapons during the protests,” Li Kwai Wah, senior superintendent of the Organized Crime and Triad Bureau, said in a news conference. “If you are part of these violent protesters, there will be consequences.”
China’s government in recent days has struck a more ominous tone toward the demonstrations. The Chinese army garrison in Hong Kong released a video this week showing soldiers practicing shooting protesters. Officials in Beijing have hinted at military options to quell the dissent, which figures show is already taking a toll on Hong Kong’s economy. Maj. Gen. Chen Daoxiang, commander of the People’s Liberation Army garrison in Hong Kong, called the unrest “absolutely intolerable.”
Last weekend, a densely packed neighborhood became the scene of forceful clashes between police and young demonstrators, the streets filled with tear gas and projectiles fired from both sides. Demonstrations planned for Saturday include a pro-police rally and an anti-government demonstration in different parts of the city.
Meanwhile, some have called for a general strike Monday, encouraged by trade unions. Thousands of businesses have said they will join.
Hong Kong’s tolerance for more-radical protest action has grown over what many see as government inaction and an unwillingness to compromise. Police declined to authorize marches last weekend, but thousands of people showed up anyway. Dozens were arrested, and 44 people were charged with rioting, which carries a sentence of up to 10 years in prison.
But many remain undeterred, including civil servants who showed up for Friday evening’s march despite the risk to their jobs. Ahead of the rally, the Hong Kong government released a statement saying the 180,000-strong force must serve the government of the day with “total loyalty and to the best of their ability, no matter what their own political beliefs are.” It warned it would follow up on any violations of regulations by civil servants.
“This is not just a fight for us, but for the next generations,” said a civil servant in the housing department who identified herself only as Kit.
Protesters have appealed for international support, and some groups have carried U.S. flags at rallies. One protester interviewed by The Washington Post recently said he believed that President Trump and American allies were the only ones able to “stand up to China.”
Speaking to reporters on Thursday, however, Trump labeled the protest movement “riots” and said that if Beijing acts to stop the protests, it will be between Hong Kong and China “because Hong Kong is part of China.”
China, meanwhile, has accused the United States of stoking the demonstrations.
Anna Kam and Tiffany Liang in Hong Kong contributed to this report.